Bassil is the current number one in her sport -- despite little in the way of support
Last-minute funding helped her to reach the Rio games
She is one of very few female trap shooters in Lebanon
She’s struggled for funding in a country where sport has long been overshadowed by politics and even bloody conflict – but Ray Bassil is on the cusp of something special.
The 27-year old arrived at the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro as number one in the world in women’s trap shooting – a fast-moving discipline where the competitor hits “clay pigeons” released from a spring trap with a shotgun.
She’s also the favorite to become Lebanon’s first-ever gold medalist.
Despite her lofty ranking, Bassil’s climb to the top hasn’t been easy.
It’s a constant struggle for resources and support in a country where there’s little infrastructure for any athletes at her level. Lebanon is still recovering and rebuilding after a devastating civil war that raged between 1975 and 1990.
It was only in the months leading up to the Rio showcase when she received funding to make the costly trip – through private sponsorships.
“Before [the funding] it was really much harder. I had to work and cover my expense and my training,” she says between practice rounds on the range.
Bassil’s aunt and sports manager, Cicilia Moudaber, estimates that training has cost the athlete $135,000 in the year leading up to the Olympic Games.
In order to pay for her expenses – which include custom-made gear, private training sessions every day, as well as travel to competitions around the world – Bassil runs a restaurant near her home north of Beirut. She also receives help from family members where they can.
In countries where there is well-established support for Olympic athletes, such as the United States, athletes are offered access to a range of services, including trainers, medical professionals, school tuition contributions, and even career management advisers. The United States Olympic Committee gave $73 million directly to American athletes and sports bodies and another $81 million to support programs in 2013 alone, according to its website.
And then there’s the issue of being a woman in a male-dominated world.
Bassil has never had a teammate, as she’s the first professional woman rifle shooter in Lebanon in decades. Since she started shooting 14 years ago, Bassil has been the only woman at the shooting range, where photos of men receiving trophies line the walls.
When Bassil trains, there are often a handful of men who stop what they’re doing to watch her shoot, but there is no sign she’s fazed by the attention.
It’s the same at her afternoon gym session, where more photos of male athletes stare down from the walls. Bassil says she has grown accustomed to the role of “little sister” around the crowd of male shooters, whom she praises for their encouragement over the years.
Her father, Jack Bassil, a former competitive shooter, first introduced his daughter to shooting when she was a teenager. Almost every day he stands behind his daughter as she practices, cotton in his ears, eyes following the trajectory of each shot.
“On competition day, I become a different person,” he says, his hands over his heart and smiling. “I’m stressed and shaking, waiting for the results.”
Jack is her coach day-to-day, but ahead of competitions Bassil exchanges text messages with a coach based in Italy who oversees her routine remotely. There are no coaches in Lebanon with the level of expertise required, she says.
The family involvement doesn’t end here.
Her mother, Jocelyn Bassil, has traveled with her daughter to many competitions, and has stepped in to help manage her daughter’s restaurant in the year leading up to Rio. Her sports manager aunt handles everything from media interviews to sponsorship agreements.
But they’ll all be watching Bassil’s Olympic bid back in Lebanon – it’s just far too expensive for everyone to travel.
Bassil has learned to tune these challenges out and focus on her target: a neon-orange clay disc the size of an adult hand that is fired from one of 15 positions, and travels left, right or center, at random. The sport requires an extreme level of focus that borders on a trance-like state, she says.
She meets a specialist several times a week who helps her to tune out distractions on competition day by creating chaos around her during training. He shakes a water bottle, blows in her ear, and even pokes her as she takes aim.
Bassil says she’s more ready than ever for the competition in Rio. This will be her second Olympics, after placing 18th in London in 2012. But her father says she’s a different person going into these Games.
“She didn’t have the training she has today,” he says. “Before, she was by herself in everything. Today, no. There’s a team with her.”
Though sports may not be a funding priority in Lebanon, Bassil is a source of pride and passion among Lebanese people.
In the weeks leading up to the Games, major networks broadcast interviews with Bassil, sponsors organized photoshoots and social media campaigns, while the local mayor in her town held a celebration where a cocktail – a “golden bullet” – was mixed in her honor.
Ray Bassil will compete in the women’s trap shooting event on Sunday, August 7.