Evan Birken fires at a clay target at Oak Ridge Gun Club on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019. Haley Sawyer/The Signal

Evan Birken is Olympic skeet shooting hopeful

Evan Birken has a Dodgers jersey. Sort of. It’s actually a shooting vest with the Dodgers logo and the number “25” on it.

On the Dodgers’ roster, David Freese wears No. 25. But for Birken, a junior at Valencia High School who competes in skeet shooting, the number 25 represents how many clay targets he attempts to shoot in a single round.

Skeet shooting, an Olympic event, seems vastly different from baseball on the surface. For one, it’s a niche sport that few youth athletes have the opportunity to be involved in. 

Birken was exposed to it at a young age, however, when his father took him to Oak Ridge Gun Club in Newhall. Whenever his dad, Harris, took him to the range, a 10-year-old Birken always had his eye on the trap shooting range.

“He would always point to the trap field and say I want to do that,” said Harris, a former firearms instructor. “So one day we rented a 20-gauge and that was it.”

Harris wasn’t sure Birken’s preteen frame would be able to handle the recoil of a shotgun, but it did, and it embraced it. Birken was hooked. He was playing basketball at the time, but exchanged his time on the court for time on the range.

“He thought I was too small or whatever to be able to shoot a shotgun,” Birken said. “I eventually tried it and like, right way, I was pretty good at it.”

Birken stuck to trap shooting for three years, then switched to bunker trap shooting. He was practicing at a range nearly 100 miles away, but made the decision to start practicing at Oak Ridge, a range much closer to home, when he began taking the sport more seriously at 11 years old.

Now, Birken is at the range four to five times every week and as a result, has developed Olympic dreams. He competes in major events year-round with his most recent favorite being the Junior Olympics, which was held in June in Colorado.

Although he is competing in an Olympic sport, Birken tends to be shy about it. A sport involving a gun can draw mixed reactions in a day and age where gun safety is a hot-button issue.

“A lot of people don’t like it, but most people understand that this is a sport,” he said. “Personally, I don’t tell a lot of people that I do this. You never know how people are going to like, react to you telling them, so it’s kind of weird for me.

“The sport that I do involves a gun, so I mean, there’s nothing I can really do about that.”

Shooting sports differ from other sports because, obviously, it uses a gun. But it involves just as much mental focus, if not more, as any other sport.

The athlete shoots from eight different stations at clay targets that are released at over 60 miles per hour from a “high house” or a “low house” on opposing sides of the shooting range. There are either single targets, which is one clay disc, or double targets, which are two clay discs that cannot be shot at the same time.

Birken dials in before competition by watching the people shoot before him and listening to either country music or 50s music — Elvis Presley, in particular.

This week, Birken will be tuning in to “The King” frequently as he competes at USA Shooting’s Fall Selection, the first phase of the 2020 Olympic Qualifiers in Kernville, Texas.

“Whether he places well or comes in last, the fact that he’s so dedicated, we’re already super proud of him,” Harris said. “It would just be the icing on the cake if he placed or did really well, which we have high hopes that he will. There’s no expectations, he’s pretty much competing against adults and the best in the country, so we’re just looking forward to watching him try his hardest.”

Beyond the competition in Texas, Birken is hoping to qualify for the 2024 Olympics. Until then, he’s focused on making the junior national team and getting noticed in the sport he’s worked in silence to master and shed a positive light on.

“It’s a really hard sport at first,” he said. “When I bring my friends or something, they never want to come back just because they can’t hit anything when they’re first trying it.

“But I think if you’re not really into like guns and stuff and you do give it a shot, you can definitely realize how wrong people would be at assuming that it’s a dangerous sport. You really don’t know unless you try.”

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