Viewers of episode 2 of Top Shot Season 2 watched as World Champion shooter Athena Lee struggled to adapt her skills to a .38 caliber Colt Police revolver and was eventually nominated for elimination from the show. Athena came onto the show with quite the reputation as one of the fastest shooters in the world. She holds the title of 1999 and 2008 IPSC World Shoot Open Women’s Champion, 2002 and 2007 USPSA National Open Women’s Champion, and 2002 and 2003 World Speed Shooting Open Women’s Champion. But her skills with race-guns didn’t help much when faced with older iron-sighted pistols.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: First of all, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I know you’ve been swamped with interview requests.
Athena Lee: Oh my gosh, yeah.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: How hard was it to sit on this secret, knowing that you got eliminated on the second episode for this many months?
Athena Lee: Well, it was tough considering all of my friends in the shooting community were like “Yeah! We know you’re going to do awesome!” and I just knew, but all I could think was “No, not really…” *laughs*
It was pretty tough, but I just tried to tell them, especially with the episode last night, “Just watch it, it’s going to be awesome!”
Cheaper Than Dirt!: Well, it was definitely awesome, and you have to admit: It’s pretty impressive to even just be selected to be on the show at all.
Athena Lee: Definitely, it was an honor. The cast was just amazing, I couldn’t have asked to be with a better group of people.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: Let’s discuss your shooting background here for a little bit. Most of us are familiar with the fact that you were born and raised in the Philippines, but how did you first get started shooting and shooting competitively?
Athena Lee: My dad started shooting IPSC style shooting, he was the shooter in the family. In the Philippines, shooting is a little bit expensive. It’s not like here where guns are readily available. My dad had been shooting at the time for about 4 or 5 years, and this was back in December of 1991, he went to the shooting range to practice for a Steel Challenge tournament. I went with him because I figured that he and his friends would go out and get something to eat at McDonald’s, which had just opened in the Philippines.
That was a big deal, because while here in the US there is a McDonald’s on just about every block, over there they just didn’t exist. This one was the first, so I went with him and helped him pick up brass and whatnot after he shot. Of course, being 13, I got bored really fast. He noticed and said “Hey, try shooting this single stack 1911 in .38 Super.” Those may not have been his exact words, but he told me to “Try the gun, shoot at these targets.”
So, the first stage I ever shot was the Steel Challenge stage “Smoke ’em and Hope,” for those of you who are familiar with that setup. The targets were gigantic and really close so it was pretty easy.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: Until you get to the stop plate that is.
Athena Lee: Exactly. But, being new, I didn’t care about times. I just kept hitting and hitting and I kept asking my Dad for more magazines. He figured that I was holding the gun pretty safely, which was remarkable because I was less than five feet tall at the time, and my hands were tiny. Still, I was gripping the gun well so he decided to let me shoot.
He had me dry fire for about two weeks, and then I joined the upcoming Steel Challenge match.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: How did you do at your first match?
Athena Lee: It was fun, but my time was nearly 200 seconds. Still, I finished 2nd Lady, and that was the first thing I’d ever won in my life, so I was pretty excited. I got hooked. I didn’t know it then, but I’m a really competitive person. I want to be number one.
I kept practicing, and in two months I did place first, shooting against other ladies who had been shooting much longer.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: Did you stick with Steel Challenge for a while, or did you quickly transition to IPSC?
Athena Lee: No, they have different seasons over there, so they have the Steel Challenge season and then after that it’s time for the IPSC matches. From steel I went to paper, which was kinda weird. Back then, there were no high-cap guns, so reloads and all of that stuff were quite common. Shooting with my father and his friends was a cool father-daughter bonding thing. At the same time, there was just no rush quite like shooting Steel Challenge or IPSC.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: At some point during all of this you moved to the US. Now while the Philippines has relaxed gun laws compared to the rest of the world, compared to the United States gun ownership is fairly restrictive. What was it like moving to the United States, and Texas in particular, where gun ownership is not uncommon?
Athena Lee: Back in the Philippines, every time there is an election, which is about every year, they enact gun bans. That means that 45 days prior to and 45 days after the election, you can’t go out and shoot at a shooting range or carry your gun outside the house. The screwy thing about that is that over there, all guns are licensed. That is partially how the police get their revenue. Every time you renew your gun license, which is every year or two, or to get a permit to carry which is a separate permit, you have pay licensing fees. It’s kinda messed up.
I like to shoot when I want to, not only six months out of the year. I decided to move to greener pastures, and I had the opportunity to immigrate to the United States. One of the ways you can become a Permanent Resident here in the US is to be what they refer to as an “Athlete of Extraordinary Ability” and at that time in 1999 I won my first World Championship in IPSC. They counted that as qualifying for an O-1 Visa, so I took that opportunity to move here.
At first it was difficult, because in the Philippines I didn’t work and my parents paid for everything. Once I got here it was a real wakeup call. The sad thing about it was that as soon as I moved here I had to work, and that meant I couldn’t shoot as much. Somehow I still managed to weave my shooting into my schedule.
I had to grow up really fast when I moved here.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: Even with all of those hardships and the difficulty of adjusting to an American lifestyle, you still managed to rack up an impressive series of wins.
Athena Lee: Thankfully, everybody was supportive. The gun range at that time that sponsored my work visa was very supportive, so at least I could still shoot. I didn’t make as much money as I wanted to, but I got lucky and met my current boss through the gun range and managed to get hired on by this oil company, which opened up even more doors.
But that’s the thing, I’m not a pro-shooter. I don’t get paid to shoot.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: Unlike some other shooters, you have to hold down a day job and all of your shooting expenses that aren’t covered by your sponsors are covered by yourself.
Athena Lee: Exactly.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: Were there any mentors or coaches that helped you succeed as you climbed the ranks through IPSC and Steel Challenge?
Athena Lee: My Dad coached me through the entire time I was in the Philippines. He was there when I won my first World Championship. Growing up we received issues of Front Sight, the USPSA publication, and I’d see names like Kay Miculek who is now a really good friend of mine and she’s been my hero every since. I also looked up to Lisa Munson and others shooters like that. It’s still funny, I’ll stop and think sometimes and it seems surreal to be shooting with these women on the US team. When I started shooting I never even dreamed of becoming a world champion. I just wanted to beat the top Lady in our city.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: How did you first find out about Top Shot, and when did you make the decision to apply to be on the show?
Athena Lee: When they first came out with the casting call for Season 1 my boyfriend saw that and said “Oh my gosh, you have to go,” but I wasn’t so sure. Later it turned out I ran out of time to apply to Season 1. Then I saw J.J. on Season 1, and he’s actually a good friend of mine. We used to shoot together in the Philippines, and I still shoot with him a lot here. After the show, he gave me a call and said “Hey, you might want to check this out. I had a great time and did really well.”
J.J. is a natural athlete. He’s always been good at everything. I’m the type of person who really just doesn’t care that much. Of course I care about losing, but to me losing is just a learning experience. I figured that I didn’t have anything to lose, and I had time to do the show, so I figured, “Why not? Hopefully they’ll like me,” but I didn’t have really high hopes.
Cheaper Than Dirt Were you surprised when you got the call telling you that you made it to the final 50 casting call?
Athena Lee: Yeah! I mean, I’m horrible about speaking in front of a camera, and this was before they started the coaching to help us out on film. I thought that I had made a horrible video, but I figured I’d just give them my resume anyway. I’d heard that they were looking for a bunch of different people from regular Joes to Professional shooters. Now I don’t consider myself to be a pro, but I figured I’d send the package in anyway.
It was pretty cool when they called me back and said “Hey, you made it to this audition.”
Cheaper Than Dirt!: Now, you knew some of the people that made it to the final audition with you, shooters like Maggie Reese among a few others. Was it reassuring to see some familiar faces at the final audition?
Athena Lee: I was pretty sure that they would be wanting to get some ladies on the show, I mean there really aren’t a lot of us. Some of us were just texting back and forth because we really weren’t allowed to see each other or talk to each other, but some of us had preexisting friendships. We just crossed our fingers, did our best, and hoped that we’d get in.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: Let’s talk about the first episode. Not to put too fine a point on it, but did you actually hit any of the targets on the first team challenge?
Athena Lee: With the 1911 they didn’t let us practice. I shoot with optics for the most part. For the last 20 years I’ve been shooting my Open division gun with about a pound and half trigger pull, red dot, everything. I’m not trying to make excuses. When we saw the first challenge I saw the billiard balls and the 1911 and thought “OK, I got this,” but as soon as I picked up that 1911 I knew I was in trouble.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: This was a USGI 1911…
Athena Lee: I know, when I picked that gun up I was like “Wow, this gun sucks.” Then, as soon as I lined up my sights I saw that my front sight was bigger than the pool ball. I’m not used to shooting iron sights. I know the concept, I’ve shot them and trained with them before, but I don’t shoot iron sights anywhere near as much as I shoot my Open gun. But I figured that all the same principles apply, I’d just line up the sights and make sure the front sight was in focus and press, “Bang!” and I missed.
OK, that was fine, I mean everyone was having trouble with that 3-ball anyway. One thing they didn’t show on that episode was that Eric, the resident token cowboy, he’s ambidextrous. He switched from shooting right handed to left handed to hit that 3-ball because it was easier to lean to the left to shoot around the striped ball that was blocking it.
The funny thing about this whole thing was that when we were planning and strategizing about this and deciding who was going to shoot at what ball, George and Chris figured that the people who aren’t very good pistol shooters should go first, and then the rest of the team should go in ascending order. I volunteered to shoot 2nd or 3rd, and Chris and George looked at me and said “You’re an IPSC shooter! You shoot last or next to last.”
What I didn’t tell them was that I don’t shoot iron sights that much.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: How did the team’s attitude toward you change after that first challenge? I mean, obviously you won so you were safe from elimination, but I’m sure that the team dynamic changed a bit after that.
Athena Lee: The thing about it was, Chris Reed is one of the most laid back guys ever. He and George were all very supportive regardless. One shooter would miss and they would be like, “That’s OK, keep going. You’re doing good.” Then I saw footage of the Blue Team and saw how negative some of them were to their other teammates. The Red Team was very positive, but Jaimie and I missed all of our shots on the first challenge. Of course that was hanging over our heads. I felt terrible about it.
Everybody knew about it, but we won that challenge and we resolved to just do better on the next challenge. I think everybody had the “first challenge jitters.” I was stunned that I didn’t hit anything, but I was also stunned that Chris Tilley didn’t hit anything, and Maggie either. We were all beating ourselves up pretty bad.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: That takes us to the next challenge shooting the .38 caliber Colt Police revolver, and you and Jaimie pulled a repeat of the previous challenge.
Athena Lee: I know! I was pretty much cursing a blue streak in my head after missing that first shot. One thing that I heard a lot of from people who saw the second episode is “Why is she shooting the revolver double action? She should be shooting it single action,” See, when we did our practice, we had the chance to shoot it both ways. For some reason, I don’t know why, but I shot better with double action, so I stuck with that.
The other thing was, later on, Gunny was telling me that I was holding the revolver too high like I would a 1911. I think that kinda affected it. I just don’t know why I couldn’t hit anything. It was pretty bad, I just don’t know how I missed. I had my sights there. Maybe the trigger and everything else was off. I felt really good going into it because I knew I could spring really fast and I was small enough that I could dodge the paintballs.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: Now, about the paintballs: For those that haven’t seen the episode, the other team was shooting at you while you were running between the barricades and obstacles. They didn’t tell us on the show who actually got hit on the Red Team, but we did find out that two hits were scored by the Blue Team.
Athena Lee: Eric and Gunny both got hit. Gunny, because he had a strange hamstring injury so he wasn’t moving as fast as he could, but he was still a great shot.
The other thing that they didn’t mention in the show was that, in the event of a tie, the team with the fastest time would win. Both Red and Blue had 12 hits, but unfortunately our team had two people get hit by paintballs. Had that not happened, I think we would have had the faster time. But, that’s beside the point. We lost, and it was my fault.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: Back at the house, during the team meeting, was it pretty obvious that you and Jaimie would be in the elimination challenge?
Athena Lee: Yeah. That was easy. There was a little bit of discussion over Guida, but I said “John, don’t even go there. You hit your targets that you were supposed to hit. You’re going to heal up in a couple of days. I shot like crap. I deserve to be in that elimination.”
Cheaper Than Dirt!: That’s important to point out that there were often two or three days between events.
One of the things they did on the show was make it look like I was shocked that they picked me for the elimination.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: You knew going into it that you would be selected for the elimination challenge.
Athena Lee: Absolutely. That’s the cool thing is that on the Red Team we were going to do this by performance. It was the easiest and most clear cut way to do it.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: One would think that because you had pistols, specifically revolvers, that you would also have pistols at the elimination challenge, and that you would have a natural advantage as a trained pistol shooter. Then you showed up, and instead of pistols you have a Thompson submachine-gun.
Athena Lee: It was such a crushing feeling in my heart, but at the same time I was happy. I had never shot anything like that before, and it was so cool…
Cheaper Than Dirt!: You did have just the biggest smile on your face when Colby mentioned that this was the full-auto version.
Athena Lee: At first I figured, well, we’re in California, they probably only have the semiautomatic version. But no. It was full-auto. Then the expert started trying to teach me how to hold the gun, but it didn’t quite fit me. I needed to take a saw to that thing.
I had to improvise. I’ve been improvising my entire life, in order to compensate for certain things like needing to get a step-stool when I need to reach certain things.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: It did seem like you had the deck stacked against you to go from a pistol to a full-sized full-auto machine-gun with a stock that is too long. It’s difficult for even a big guy to control the recoil on that gun.
Athena Lee: Even Jaimie was complaining, saying “Man, that kinda wiped me out.”
Once we started the practice session I started trying to figure out the best way to grip it and the best way to shoulder it. My left arm, when trying to grasp the front grip, my forearm was actually resting on the drum. The guys had clearance, but I didn’t. I was hugging that gun.
By the time I had run through two or three drums I decided I needed a break. When I came back I was so tired I had to shoot the gun using two fingers to pull the trigger. I don’t know if you noticed that on the episode, but I’ve always had trouble with heavy triggers. I was so tired I was just pulling the trigger with two fingers.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: Moving on to the challenge, what happened there? You seemed to take your time with deliberate aimed shots for the first drum, but, well tell us what happened with the second drum?
Athena Lee: *laughs* Well, during practice I really wanted to just go full auto and empty a drum, but I was afraid he was going to yell at me. When we were shooting at the challenge I just took my time and shot short bursts. But with the angle of the sun and all of the smoke, not to make excuses, but I couldn’t really see my target.
I was just so exhausted and was running on pure adrenaline at that point. After the practice session that morning I wanted to take a nap. That gun beat the crap out of me. After I decided I couldn’t see anything, it was almost like a little hopeless sinking feeling. I went to the second drum and just decided that, well, I’d always wanted to do this.
It wasn’t like I was just quitting, but everything really was going against me at that point.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: And after all, at the end of the day, you were just there to have fun.
Athena Lee: Exactly! And here I was thinking, well, this is useless. You know, if I’m going to go out, I want to go out loud and blazing.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: And you most certainly accomplished that. Then after finishing that drum you went to reload and that’s when Jaimie dropped open the vault door, and you didn’t seem that surprised.
Athena Lee: No, I wasn’t. I had a feeling that was going to happen.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: If you had the chance, would you go back and do it all over again?
Athena Lee: I would. It was a great experience, but I would only go back under the condition that was with the same cast members. They were such a great group.
That’s the thing is that we’re trying to reach out to a broader audience because a lot of people watch the show and think “Wow, that looks like a lot of fun. I want to try that.”
Cheaper Than Dirt!: You make a good point there, and you don’t just attract female shooters to the show, but also Filipino-Americans.
Athena Lee: Oh I know! Everyone in the Philippines, especially all of my family and friends are watching the episodes any way that they can because I don’t think that they can get the History Channel over there. I don’t have a big following, but I do have some dedicated fans throughout Asia and the rest of the world. I’m hoping for the most part that, even though it’s an uphill battle, we are responsible gun owners and shooters. The people who don’t understand that are the ones who are trying to take that away from us.
There are the military guys, and I totally support what they do defending our country, but I look at this as a sport. It’s just like racing a bike, or learning how to swim or race a car. It’s just amazing the things that some people think up when they have an irrational fear of guns.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: Looking forward into the future, do you see yourself moving into Limited or Production divisions and using iron sights more often?
Athena Lee: The thing about Top Shot is that it prompted me to expand to other firearms. I know that in order to be good at something you have to work hard and you have to practice. Unfortunately I don’t have the time to do that as much as I’d like. Top Shot really opened my eyes and now I really want to try 3-gun next year, after the World shoot of course, and I want to shoot either Production or Limited.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: We can’t wait to see you there, especially since Cheaper Than Dirt just picked up sponsorship of the Junior and Ladies division championships at 3-Gun Nation. Hopefully we’ll see you walking home with a giant check from Cheaper Than Dirt after you win the 3-Gun Nation shoot-off.
Athena Lee: Yeah, you know I’ve been practicing with the Miculeks lately and I got to shoot Jerry’s awesome AR and his super slick Mossberg, and I really liked it. I’m thinking about asking them for some advice along with Taran Butler and some of the other top shooters to help get equipped with the right rifle and shotgun. Kay and Jerry have been really great and have helped me out with whatever I need.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: I know we can’t wait to see you perform at the World Championship XVI, along with a number of other Top Shot competitors from Season 1.
Athena Lee: Yup, it’s my third time to get selected for the team and we’re going to Greece in October where I’m hoping to defend my title along with the team title. And it’s not just Blake and J.J. from Season 1 that are going, Chris, Maggie, and myself are also going from Season 2.
Cheaper Than Dirt!: It will be almost like a little Top Shot reunion at the World Shoot in Greece. Well listen, I want to thank you again for taking the time to talk to us about your experience, and we’ll look for you on the 3-Gun Nation circuit in the future.
Did you watch Athena on Top Shot? What are your thoughts on Athena? The show? Share in the comments section.
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