News Article

Photo by Brian LaMay

William McMillan displays his Olympic Gold Medal. A McMillan Award hangs on the wall

Gold Medalist remembers shooting triumphs, tragedy

By Brian LaMay
Sports Editor

ENCINITAS — During his intimate, 31-year association with weapons and shooting ranges, retired Marine LtCol. William W. McMillan has run the gamut of range-related experiences.

A longtime expert shooter and five-time Olympian, he's reached the pinnacle of athletic success — an Olympic Gold Medal. Along the way, he's won myriad other national and international shooting awards. The Marine Corps even designated a pistol-shooting award — the McMillan Award — in his honor.

While McMillan knows first-hand the glory of gun proficiency, he also knows the tragedy of gun indiscretion — namely getting shot and maimed. He's reminded every time he speaks or walks across the room.

As McMillan recalls the experience from his Encinitas condominium, where he lives alone as a divorcee, he acknowledges that some people might mistake his slurred speech as drunken rambling. But there's no mistaking his sobriety of thought and expression.

At 63, McMillan looks like he could still knock a beetle off a brick wall at 30 years. He looks like a retired linebacker who's stayed in reasonably good shape — a strong, robust 6-foot frame with rosy cheeks and a face that glows good health — as he recalls a moment when he lay near death.

It happened in 1980, six years after McMillan retired from the Marine Corps and Camp Pendleton, his last duty station. Since retiring from the Marine Corps, he'd been working as a weapons training coordinator for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department at Camp Elliot's shooting range. The mishap occurred while McMillan was running deputies through target training.

"I was operating a Dual-a-Tron, an automatic target system," McMillan said. "I had two guys who were gonna be instructors and I was putting them through the paces. One guy entered the building, like a combat town. I popped up a target and he fired a couple of shots. Another target came up by a window. Instead of shooting when the target was up, he waited until the target swung back."

The trainee not only missed the target; he shot wildly and missed an embankment in place to absorb bullets.

Instead, the two 357-magnum rounds penetrated a wall and struck McMillan under his right arm. "All I felt was a slight burning sensation," he said. The bullets severed a nerve that governs equilibrium and speech. But it nearly cost McMillan a lot more.

He was unconscious and slipping fast as paramedics rolled him into an ambulance.

"When they finally got me into the meat wagon, my blood pressure went to zero," McMillan said. "They finally gave me some plasma and took me into Sharp Hospital. They assumed the bullets were in my liver and didn't want to probe in the liver area. But after six weeks, you could feel one bullet. The doctor went in and pulled that bullet out."

Fortunately, the bullet had missed vital organs. Eight months later, the second bullet worked its way out far enough to be extracted, and McMillan stepped up his rehabilitation.

McMillan said he never considered suing the county, never held anybody accountable for the accident. He just chalked it up to circumstance, took his workers compensation checks and set out on the road to recovery.

The road was long and slow, but eventually McMillan resumed a semblance of a normal life. He began exercising regularly and stayed active in shooting — though more as an administrator than a participant.

Aside from his speech and walking problems, McMillan lost his ability to make a fist with his right hand and could no longer grip a pistol.

But he could talk and walk, though not as well as before. Any disabilities seemed miniscule in comparison to what could have happened.

"I'm glad it came when it did rather than when I was a young man," McMillan said. "I was grateful that I could still see my kids and enjoy life."

Such a philosophical approach to adversity also marked McMillan's shooting career.

He never took losing too seriously and never let competitive fire get the best of him. "I think I did it more for recreation, but I never had a burning desire to shoot per se," he said.

Grace and calm under pressure was McMillan's ace in the hole. For example, in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he was tied for first-place in rapid-fire pistol with two shooters, a Finn and a Soviet, after two rounds of action, forcing a shoot-off.

With two hours to wait before the shoot-off, McMillan employed a tactic Gold Medal-winner Bob Mathias used between decathlon events. "I went and laid down under a tree and went to sleep," McMillan said.

In the shoot-off, McMillan shot the round of his life, scoring 147 of a possible 150, four points ahead of the Finn and eight ahead of the Soviet.

He speculates his nap might have psyched out his competitors. "I like to think so," he said with a grin.

McMillan also made the Olympic team in 1952, 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1975, failing to qualify only in 1956.

He finished seventh in rapid-fire pistol at his first Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952. After winning Olympic Gold at age 30 in 1960, he never medaled again. Eye doctors attributed decreasing accuracy to increasing age.

During his first Olympics, McMillan was inspired by the performance of a Hungarian army officer, who followed up a Gold Medal-winning performance in 1948 with another Gold Medal in 1952.

"He shot the course right-handed in 1948. He had his right hand blown off in a hand grenade accident, then came back and won it with his left-hand in 1952," McMillan said.

McMillan beat that same Hungarian to win a world championship in center-fire pistol in 1958. He won his fist international title 9n 1954, registering the highest combined score at an international center-fire and rapid-fire pistol match in Caracas, Venezuela.

McMillan also won volumes state, regional and national titles.

He was a natural. He won a gold medal at the Marine Corps Eastern Division Matches in 1949, his first year shooting, even though he'd never shot anything more sophisticated than a BB gun before joining the Corps.

He won the Marine Corps Matches five times for combined rifle and pistol score and in 1959 became the only Marine to win all three categories — rifle, pistol and combined score — a distinction that still holds today.

Heading into the 1960 Olympics, McMillan had to be seen as an underdog. After all, he shot under national rules in the United States, while most of the world shot under more-difficult international guidelines.

For example, in rapid-fire pistol, McMillan's specialty, American rules called for five shots at one target within 10 seconds. International rules require more movement, with one shot at each of five targets in only four seconds. "It's like apples and oranges," McMillan said.

The transition was difficult, leaving McMillan and other American shooters at a disadvantage against foreigners.

Plus, as a Marine, McMillan was expected to master several weapons and couldn't concentrate solely on his chosen event, rapid-fire pistol.

In later years, McMillan narrowed his focus — a development that he believes gave him an edge at several Olympic trials and enabled him to make the team.

"It was by virtue of specializing in one gun," McMillan said. "Other shooters tried to shoot four or five guns over four of five courses. I don't think you can do that, especially because national and international courses are not compatible."

For the most part, McMillan is no longer involved in shooting, although mosaic of shooting awards and photos still adorn a living room wall while the Olympic Gold Medal, encased in Lucite, sits on an end table.

McMillan occasionally performs a military function, maybe presiding at a shooting match award ceremony at Edson Range. The day after this interview, he served as reviewing officer at a Marine Corps Recruit Depot graduation ceremony.

Otherwise, he attends to his condominium, works out at the gym or spends time with his three grown children, all of whom live in San Diego County. He and his ex-wife take turns taking care of his daughter, who suffers from Down Syndrome.

McMillan said he'll watch the Olympic Games and the Dream Team on television, even though he regrets the "professionalization" of the Olympics.

"You can make a good argument for using professionals, because most countries don't have separate categories for professional and amateur athletes," he said. "But I think when you open the Olympics to professional athletes; you're looking at the downside of the Olympics."

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