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Pistol ace takes best shot

Babiuc makes the Olympics his target

WOBURN -- Vlad Babiuc's favorite sport has sometimes forced him to do some explaining.

One time when he was at the airport, the woman at the ticket counter nearly screamed when Babiuc informed her that he had guns. He was simply being forthright; she thought he was holding her up.

"The look on her face . . ." he said.

Then, there was the time Babiuc had to convince his teacher to show the class a video of him and his friends firing guns, relevant to their pro-and-con presentation about the Second Amendment, which addresses the right to bear arms.

"I mostly did all the 'for' points," said a chuckling Babiuc, "because I'm for it."

Which makes sense, because Babiuc, 18, is a member of the national pistol-shooting development team.

Babiuc, who moved to Woburn from Moldova at age 7, was shooting by the time he was 13. At 16, he was the Junior Olympic national champion in the free pistol, setting a record for accuracy that still stands. Last month, he won three medals (two silvers in adult competition, one gold in junior) at the Bay State Games.

Now, the recent Woburn High graduate, who is bound for Bentley College, is eyeing international competition -- and a little further down the road -- the 2012 Olympics in London.

"Hopefully," he said, "to win it, also."

Then, maybe the gold medal will do the talking for him.

Ignoring the critics
While most parents do their best to steer their children away from guns, Babiuc's father, Solomon Kraner, did the opposite. Kraner was introduced to shooting when he was about 13, living in what was then the Soviet Republic of Moldova.

"When I was in school, I remember some guy walked in and said, 'Who wants to try shooting?' " Kraner said.

So he went down to the range, and with just 10 shots caught the instructor's eye. He shot competitively until he went off to college, but had to quit the sport because the USSR did not allow private citizens to own guns.

When he moved to the United States in the mid-1990s, he said, "OK, I am in a free country. Let me try it again.

"Especially when my son started asking me, I said, 'Oh, maybe it's in his blood,' " Kraner said.

It was, and nowadays Kraner -- one of Babiuc's three coaches, and still a competitive shooter in his age division -- typically can't hold a candle to his son's performances.

"Once in a while he beats me in practice," Babiuc said. "But that's on my bad days."

Those are getting fewer and fewer for Babiuc, and Kraner couldn't be prouder. While the stigma surrounding guns can be a hot-button political issue, Kraner knows shooting has brought his son discipline, focus, and a great appreciation for safety.

In fact, Babiuc said he has heard that because of the constant concerns for safety and the rigid precautions taken, shooting is actually mentioned alongside chess as the sport (if chess is a sport) with the fewest injuries.

"Most of the time, when he was a younger kid, my friends were telling me, 'What are you doing? You are teaching him to shoot. You are not worried about how dangerous it is?' " Kraner said. "You know what I said? Everything can be for good and bad. You take a match, and you light a fire, right? You can use it to make food, or you can make bad things with a fire. As long as you teach people how to handle it, you can . . . enjoy it."

Pulling the trigger
It has been easy to enjoy for Babiuc, who showed some natural talent when he started, but then saw his scores skyrocket to a level not often seen at his age. When he first started, he fired a 357 (out of 600) in the air pistol event. Now, five years later, his best score is a 576.

"My scores kept going up," said Babiuc, who credits much of his early improvement to the coaching of Billerica's Larry Forman. "Mostly everybody's do, but I guess mine just never stopped going up."

Scoring in Babiuc's two principal events, the 10-meter air pistol and the 50-meter free pistol, is simple. Shooters are given an hour and 45 minutes or two hours to fire 60 shots at the target, at their own, often deliberate, pace. Hitting the bull's-eye, either 1.15 centimeters (air pistol) or 4.5 centimeters (free pistol) in diameter, is worth 10 points, making the maximum score 600 points. Surrounding rings decrease in point value.

In rifle competitions, with two arms and a shoulder to brace the gun, it's possible to see a perfect score. But with pistols, where shooters can use only one arm and no support mechanisms (even shoes are regulated), the world records linger in the 590s or lower, and Babiuc's 512 at age 16 was good enough for the J2 (15- to 17-year-old) national record in the 50-foot free pistol.

To improve his scores, he abstains from other hobbies, pouring most of his time into shooting, and goes to either an elite computer-scoring facility in Fort Benning, Ga., or the national range in Colorado Springs to compete or train about eight times a year.

Though he struggled (by his standards) at the nationals this year, he said the advice national team coach Sergey Luzov (his third coach) gave him already has him excited and on a better path.

Just because there aren't many injuries doesn't mean shooting isn't an intense, precise physical activity. When shooting, Babiuc said, he has to balance not only his body, but also his mind.

The body is hard enough -- he must focus his eye through his prescription monocle (the other eye is blocked by a blinder), put enough pressure on the trigger, and keep a steady hand throughout the gun's kickback, all while locked in on his incredibly small target. Still, Babiuc called the sport 90 percent mental, and said he is so attuned to the gun that he can feel the parts moving inside of it.

"For some reason, something always goes wrong when you take the shot," Babiuc said, "because there are so many things to worry about."

Luzov said that there are "some challenges that we have to work out," calling Babiuc a "valuable talent. You can't find that often. Normally, for the kid, developing mental toughness is the biggest challenge. That's what we've got to be working on with him now, because he looks like technically he is much more advanced than mentally, which is very important in shooting."

As is physical fitness.

"After the match, you are so exhausted it's unbelievable," Kraner said. "People say, 'What is this? You are just shooting.' No. Each shot is such concentration."

But Babiuc makes it seem effortless. His first three free pistol shots last week at the Massachusetts Rifle Association in Woburn, taken casually as a demonstration, notched two 9s and a 10.

He smiled, and offered no explanation.

Mike Lipka can be reached at mlipka@globe.com.

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