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Alaska state budget director has Olympic credentials

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 27, 2014

FAIRBANKS -- In assembling his cabinet and key support staff, Gov. Bill Walker has chosen a wide variety of independents, Democrats and Republicans, as well as one Olympic champion.

Pat Spurgin Pitney, selected by Walker to be the state budget director, won a gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. She was an 18-year-old college sophomore when she became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal in air rifle. A year before the Olympics, she won four gold medals at the Pan American Games, and she also was an NCAA champion at Murray State University in Kentucky and an eight-time All-American in both air rifle and the smallbore rifle competition.

Her Kentucky legacy is such that today the Murray State University rifle team competes on the Pat Spurgin Rifle Range, one of the best in the country.

She began shooting at 9, learning from her older siblings and parents. Her dad ran a sporting goods store in Billings, Montana, which included the usual assortment of hardware offerings and a gun shop. Family outings in those days often included trap shooting, she said.

"That was our family activity," she said. "My oldest brother became very good, and I followed him."

She practiced from two to six hours a day, usually six days a week, developing the mind and muscle control to execute the exact same movements over and over again. A fellow Olympian advised her to be like a duck -- calm on the surface, but battling like hell underneath.

She shot 393 out of 400 at the Olympics, which means she hit a spot the size of a ballpoint pen on 33 shots out of 40 from 10 meters. On seven shots, she just missed. The Los Angeles Times, reporting the next day, said "Spurgin set her gun down to take a break and had 12 minutes to complete her final five shots -- then shot four nines and a 10 to win. She became America's first women's Olympic air rifle champion."

"I just took a deep breath and kind of asked myself, 'Are you going to do what you came here to do?' and was able to pull back together and finished well," she told the newspaper later.

Her score would not be enough to win today, she said. UAF freshman Sagen Maddalena hit 59 perfect shots in a row at a competition this fall, just missing on her final shot, a near-perfect performance that Pitney mentioned to show how the sport has advanced since her day.

If there is a trait that carries over from her days as a sharpshooter to the present, it may be her ability to focus on a goal.

"I'm not exactly a sit-on-the-sidelines kind of person," she told a Montana reporter last year before being inducted into the USA Shooting Sports Hall of Fame. "I'm going 100 miles per hour all of the time. I'm focused on something and get it done."

Pitney said she was fortunate as a teenager to have the chance to travel around the world and compete. She said she was even more fortunate that the 1984 Olympics were in the U.S., giving her parents and her childhood coach the first chance to see her in an international event.

Pitney was all of 11 when she made it known that she wanted to win a gold medal in the Olympics. Her coach, Ralph Saunders, said maybe she should start with something less ambitious, but she was not to be deterred. "We had an amazing coach who sat us down and had us write out our goals," she said.

Saunders, her coach in the Yellowstone Junior Rifle Club, kept the paper target on which she had scrawled her Olympic intentions. And he presented the document to her after her long-shot childhood dream became a reality.

Pitney, 49, now has her sights on mastery of what may be an even more elusive target than Olympic gold.

Since leaving her former position as a vice chancellor for administrative services at the University of Alaska Fairbanks less than a month ago, Pitney has directed her energies to the Walker administration's effort to recast the state budget following the collapse in oil prices. She said budget planners have been meeting on a continuing basis since the new administration began Dec. 1, with the goal of offering a solid proposal to the Legislature.

On Friday, Walker asked state commissioners to prepare plans showing how they would deal with a 5 percent budget cut and an 8 percent budget cut compared to the budget prepared by the administration of former Gov. Sean Parnell.

For Pitney, complicated budget details are not a new experience, as she dealt with the university budget for many years, both for the statewide system and for UAF. "The complexity, the competing choices, the process -- it's all very similar except from a different angle," she said.

Pitney ended her career as a competitive shooter in 1988 when she started a family. She and her husband, Randy, have three children: Kimberly, Crystal and Logan. "Once I had kids, this was irrelevant," she said of her daily shooting sessions. "When you have kids, it's not about you anymore."

She went back to school, earned an MBA from UAF and began her career at the university in 1991.

A year ago, Pitney took time off from her administrative work at UAF to engage in another Olympic tradition -- she represented the United States, going on a Russian icebreaker to the North Pole, where she and 10 others walked around the pole as part of the travel schedule for the Olympic torch in advance of the Sochi Olympics.

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