Children at Tenaya Elementary School and teens at Tioga High School got to meet Sagen Maddalena on Friday, a homecoming kickoff for the 28-year-old world-class U.S. Olympics and Army sharpshooter who grew up in Groveland and became the world’s fifth-best woman in 50m smallbore rifle marksmanship at the Tokyo Olympics in August.

Maddalena, who sat “in the back with the regular people” when she flew into Sacramento on a civilian commercial airliner Thursday, spent more time with her hometown folks Friday afternoon and evening, visiting with grownups at Around the Horn Brewing Co. in Big Oak Flat, Yosemite Lakes RV Resort, and Rush Creek Lodge for events that included water gun and marshmallow gun target shooting.

Groveland’s newest celebrity came to meet people young and old Friday with a humble, human touch, and easy-to-comprehend stories about her love of the woods, hard work, overcoming setbacks, and common sense in terms the elementary and high schoolers could understand.

Maddalena posed for dozens of photos and selfies with students and grownups, and dropped to her knees to sign autographs for some of her youngest new fans at Tenaya Elementary.

She’s got a full schedule Saturday, too, starting with an Operation Homecoming Convoy parade through Groveland, Big Oak Flat, and Pine Mountain Lake, more events at Yosemite Adventure Supplies, the Pizza Factory, paintball at Mary Laveroni Community Park, a private event for women military veterans, active duty military women, and civilian women, and dinner at Camp Tuolumne Trails.

Monday she’s planning to do breakfast at Woods Creek Cafe in Jamestown, followed by an afternoon-evening event at Chicken Ranch Casino.

Her whirlwind homecoming tour is a chance for her to step away from the rigors of globally competitive sharpshooting and elite military marksmanship, and to unwind with people who understand how much she loves the outdoors because they grew up right here doing the same things she likes to do on her spare time.

She likes to fish when she has time off from her base at Fort Benning, Georgia. They don’t have many trout back east, but she’s skilled at rod-and-reel and fly fishing for bass and catfish from her kayak on the Chattahoochee River.

“Once a month I do catch-and-keep,” she said Friday morning before meeting students at Tenaya Elementary. “I like to bake the bass in my cast iron with red wine, garlic and butter. Catfish I fry.”

Maddalena likes to spend her spare time “on the water or in the woods,” sometimes working property maintenance jobs like building fire breaks and cleanup.

“I learned it here,” she said. “Growing up in Groveland, you experience nature and wildfire. It’s a natural occurrence. In the woods on private property, you have to maintain the balance. To grow healthy trees, you have to take some trees out and find a way to make it profitable.”

At Tenaya Elementary and Tioga High, a central theme in her talks with youngsters was “coming from a small town doesn’t mean small opportunities, whether you want to play baseball or soccer, or work in the woods.”

Maddalena said she runs, stretches, does yoga, practices breathing, and trains five hours a day to shoot short distances.

“I like to think of a tree,” she said of her mindset while shooting. “Still as can be. Able to bend with the wind.”

She knows long-distance shooting, too. At Tioga High School, Maddalena showed students one of her competition rifles and answered questions about her shooting, her military role as an instructor-shooter, and her military job as a cannon crew member.

“In 50-meter competition, I’m shooting about the length of this basketball court at a target about the size of a dime or a quarter,” she said. “With other rifles I’ve hit a milk jug at 1,500 yards using optics, and I’ve hit a target at 1,000 yards without optics. My military job, I have to train for it, is loading and firing 119er howitzers.”

The 199er howitzer is capable of firing 105-millimeter shells as far as seven miles, according to its British government manufacturer, the Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment.

Students at Tenaya Elementary asked Maddalena if she ever had doubts, how she first got into shooting, whether being in 4-H helped put her on a path to compete in the Olympics, if the Olympics were scary, and what kinds of foods she eats to stay in shape for sharpshooting.

“Yeah, I had a burger yesterday,” she said. “It was good, but I need my rabbit food, my vegetables, and my proteins.”

At Tioga High, students also asked Maddalena questions about her cat, which she calls “Dollar Dollar” and “Dillie,” and her dog “Bullet,” as well as the fresh Olympic rings tattoo on her right forearm. She said she got the tattoo when she returned from this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, at a business outside Fort Benning.

Maddalena grew up raising sheep, hogs, and goats with the Highlanders 4-H Club for multiple Mother Lode Fairs, and she honed her shooting skills at the Mother Lode Gun Club in Jamestown. She grew up on several acres in the Groveland area. Her family kept livestock, mostly horses, which she showed in competitions. She raised goats for the fair and to eat brush on her family’s land.

Her grandpa, Greg Moore, introduced her to gun safety and competition when she was about 12 years old. She remembers he lived in Merced at the time and took to her a range there, where he showed her how to shoot a .22-caliber pump action Remington rifle.

At 13, Maddalena joined the .22-caliber rifle program at the Mother Lode Gun Club in Jamestown through 4-H. She was with Mother Lode Gun Club from 2009 to 2013.

Maddalena homeschooled through Keyes to Learning Charter School in Stanislaus County and graduated from high school with the class of 2012.

Earlier this year, Maddalena said her biggest influence as she developed as a young shooter in Tuolumne County was her rifle coach at Mother Lode Gun Club, Robert Taylor.

“I looked up to him as a mentor,” she said. “His professionalism. He brought out greatness in everyone he was around. By setting examples with how he acted, and his actions reflected what he said.”

Taylor also coached the statewide California Grizzlies team. He recruited Maddalena to the California Grizzlies and later suggested she pursue college shooting and learn to compete in air gun and smallbore.

Maddalena became a walk-on member on one of the best rifle teams in the country at University of Alaska Fairbanks, and red-shirted her first season for the Nanooks in 2013.

To help Maddalena gain more match experience, her Alaska Fairbanks coach, Dan Jordan, suggested she compete at World Cuptryouts in May 2014. She ultimately earned the privilege to compete internationally.

Before she joined the Army, her travels abroad included visits to Germany, Spain, Sweden, Luxembourg, France, Austria, Prague and Pilsen in the Czech Republic, and South Korea, in competitions for USA Shooting on two world championship teams.

In May 2016, when Maddalena was preparing to try out for the U.S. to compete in the Olympics that year, she told The Union Democrat newspaper, “I’ve been concentrating on the mental aspect of shooting and how to make my process better. I’m driven to shoot more by the process than the score I get. That process is a good attitude and acting like a champion to become one.”

Maddalena didn’t make it to the 2016 Olympics, but her focus and determination have now paid off. 

She qualified for the 2021 U.S. Olympics squad on May 26 at Fort Benning. She is one of two members of Team USA's Women's 50m Smallbore Team. She also qualified in February 2020 to be an alternate on Team USA’s Women’s 10m Air Rifle Team this summer in Tokyo.

“The next step is to continue this path upward in the competition realm, so I’m looking towards the next Olympics in 2024,” she said in June. “That would be the next stepping stone.”

Maddalena was born in Yolo County in August 1993. Her family moved to Groveland when she was about 5 years old, she said. She attended kindergarten to second grade at Tenaya Elementary in Groveland. She started homeschooling from third grade onward.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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