In her last IPSC World Shoot appearance as a representative of the Philippines in September of 2002, Athena Lee was well positioned to win, going into South Africa as the current defending world champion and her country's 2001 Women's National Champion.
However, Athena found herself in a tough battle with teammate Kaye Cabalatungan. Not realizing exactly where she stood in the match, Athena began to push harder and harder which resulted in her giving up more points and ultimately finishing second, just 11 points behind Cabalatungan.
When it comes to competition Athena is all go, no stop and pushing harder in order to win comes naturally. Photo: P. Erhardt
Despite the loss, Athena's finish helped her and Kaye deliver a one-two punch for the Philippines and the women's team won their second consecutive open division team gold.
It would be a bittersweet farewell in South Africa as Athena already knew she'd be putting the Philippines behind her having returned to the United States earlier that year to start the visa application process.
In the U.S., Athena sought a Type O1-A visa, the kind for "individuals with an extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics." The process would take several months, a team of lawyers and a small mountain of money, all to convince officials with the U.S. Department of State that winning the IPSC World Shoot did in fact demonstrate extraordinary ability in athletics.
If the State Department now understands that shooting is a sport, then we probably have Athena Lee to thank for that...at least in part.
Regardless of the loss in South Africa, the 2002 season ended up being an important turning point for Athena as it marked the beginning of her career as a top U.S. shooter. It was 2002 when she won her first USPSA national championship, and it also marked the beginning of her relationship with longtime sponsor Montana Gold.
Most notable, however, 2002 was the year she claimed the first of two title wins in a match that, more than any other, has been the showcase of Filipino shooting excellence, and where incidentally she began her career - the Steel Challenge.
The Steel Challenge seems to hold a very special place in the hearts of Filipino shooters and ever since the great Jethro Dionisio was the first competitor to win three World Speed Shooting Championships ('90, '92 and '93), shooters from the Philippines, or of Philippine decent, have proven themselves gods among men - and women - when it comes to speed shooting.
Sisters Valerie and Cathy Levanza have three titles between them with Valerie winning in '92 and '93 and Cathy in '98. J.J. Racaza won it in 2006 while K.C. Eusebio won it in '03, '08, '10 and a record-breaking fourth time last year.
At the 2002 Steel Challenge Athena added her name to that honor roll of brilliantly fast shooters. Then immediately followed it up with another win in 2003.
So by the close of 2002 Athena was solidly embedded as a member of the U.S. shooting community and her growing friendships with America's top women competitors, such as Kay Miculek, helped make the transition to the U.S. that much easier.
Of course, not everything was smooth and easy when it came to adjusting to America. With her Type O1-A visa in hand, Athena took up residence in Houston and began working at American Shooting Centers.
Athena remembers well the three years she spent as the only female (and only Asian) employee in the pro shop of a shooting range in the Lone Star State. More than once Texan shooters would ask to speak with "someone else" under the assumption that the girl behind the counter didn't know enough about guns to answer their question.
Being one of the world's best shooters, and having what I might call a low threshold for stupidity
, Athena found it difficult at times to bite her tongue, and (to her credit) occasionally didn't.
Athena wasn't just working behind the counter at American Shooting Centers though. She was also instructing and it was one of those instruction opportunities that put her on the path to her current career in Houston's massive oil and gas industry.
Chris Kowalis, a member at the range, sought out Athena as an instructor for his daughters. Initially she declined but Chris had his heart set on his girls learning from her, so Athena ultimately relented and starting working with the girls.
After watching her with his daughters and observing Athena's keen attention to detail, he recognized in the young shooting phenom the traits that might make for a good landman and offered her a job working for him at Dolphin Resources LLC.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a landman deals with the complicated issues surrounding mineral rights, which requires painstaking research of public and private records for a property to determine ownership of those mineral rights before oil and gas exploration of the property can begin.
Athena easily took to the new line of work and has been working as a landman ever since. So ultimately - the chauvinistic knuckleheads aside - American Shooting Centers worked out quite nicely as her first job in America.
Athena continued competing in matches throughout the country and by the time the 2005 IPSC World Shoot came around Athena Lee was ready...only this time she'd walk in the opening ceremony of the Ecuador World Shoot in the red, white and blue uniform of a proud member of Team USA.
Unfortunately for Team USA's women, that opening ceremony may have been the highlight of the Ecuador match. Athena recalls it being the year the U.S. women were snake-bit by bad luck. Athena broke not one but two C-More red dot sights on her open gun - something that's unheard of except perhaps in the halls of that famous law firm of Mr. Murphy. And the entire team suffered one disastrous day of competition which left them in second place behind Team Austria which took both the individual and team gold.
Athena explains how the 2005 World Shoot wasn't Team USA's finest hour as everybody seemed to run into trouble, including her breaking of two red dot sights during the match. Photo: P. Erhardt
Athena would bounce back to championship form two years later though, winning the 2007 U.S. Nationals (for the second time) and springboarding into the 2008 World Shoot in Bali, Indonesia where she redeemed herself winning the individual gold and leading her U.S. teammates to the team gold.
Today, Athena remains one of the top open pistol shooters in the U.S., and the world for that matter, and has committed to representing Team USA in the open division championship at the 2014 World Shoot if she makes the team. (Anybody care to bet against her?)
But just as she found it time for a change of (national) address, Athena has been looking to leave the open pistol behind for a new shooting challenge...all thanks to a little show you might have heard of called Top Shot
In 2011 when the producers for season two of Top Shot
set up the promotional 'hero shot' of the contestants holding a gun, bow, slingshot or whatever, they couldn't quite see the irony - no matter how many times Athena tried to point it out - of having a very Asian women holding an AK rifle.
Athena's not-too-subtle comments about black pajamas and bamboo hats apparently were, in fact, too subtle because producers failed to recognize they'd embarrassingly positioned one of their competitors as the stereotypical Southeast Asian resistance fighter.
Athena took it all in stride and still jokes about giving Vietnam vets flashback nightmares...for which she is sorry.
'Why, oh why, must I be the Asian girl holding the AK? And why don't they understand' Athena seems to ask of her promo photo for Top Shot? Clearly she'd prefer a nice competition-built AR instead. Photo: P. Erhardt
The 'Athena as modern day Viet Cong fighter' promo shot was her first hint that her time with the History Channel's popular shooting show might not be long. And by the end of episode two Athena was gone after the 5'-2" shooter (actually a fraction shorter but she insists on rounding up) struggled through a challenge using a Thompson submachine gun, which isn't even remotely designed for such a small statured shooter.
Being forced to shoot in Top Shot
outside her open pistol comfort zone, however, opened Athena's eyes to the possibility of taking on other shooting challenges. So in 2012, after 20 years of running an open gun, she started shooting an iron-sight pistol in limited while at the same time turning with great interest towards the possibilities presented in 3-Gun competition.
During the transition Athena discovered that though she had no problem shooting one of Johnny Lim's wonderful open double-stack 1911 variant pistols, the iron-sight version he built for her was presenting problems. Specifically, she had trouble with her sight picture and realized her small hands were overmatched by the large grip, which forced her to consider abandoning the Limcat for the moment.
For help with 3-Gun, Athena turned to the preeminent shooting house in the nation...the Miculek residence. Visiting with Kay and her daughter Lena, Athena got a crash course on what it takes to shoot 3-Gun, including a look at the vast equipment demands. With advice from Kay and Lena she 'test drove' the Remington Versa Max, the Benelli M2 and (of course) the Mossberg 930 JM Pro, settling on the Jerry Miculek signature series model as her favorite.
Athena found the Mossberg 930 JM Pro to her liking and after a little work on the length of pull - cutting it down two inches - it fit her perfectly. Photo: P. Erhardt
As for a rifle, Kay cautioned her to hold off before picking a rifle until she had a better feel for what she wanted for competition. Unbeknownst to Athena, Kay's rifle selection dodge was meant to hide the fact that she had already been helping Athena's boyfriend Elliott spec out a JP Enterprises rifle that would be her Christmas present. One more quick call to Elliott from Kay about her shotgun preference and Christmas morning would see Athena unwrapping her way through two-thirds of a 3-Gun set up.
The final third of that particular puzzle would fall into place in April of this year when Matt Mink, a top shooter for CZ, sent Athena her tuned-up CZ 75 SP01 Shadow. The CZ's smaller grip perfectly fits Athena's hands and now she has a pistol she can use in either the tac ops division in 3-Gun or IPSC's production division. Along with another Limcat specifically for 3-Gun, she's well equipped.
Along with the switch to iron-sights, the entry into 3-Gun and competition in production, 2013 witnessed one other major change, that being with Athena's sponsorship and her signing with Team Armscor.
The Philippines-based Armscor has been a longtime supporter of the Filipino shooters and their World Shoot teams, so Athena has always had a connection to the company in one form or another. This year that connection is pretty important.
As an ammunition maker, Armscor has supplied Athena with all the pistol and rifle ammo she needs to practice and compete - no small commitment on their part considering ammo is considered like gold these days. Which explains why Athena now dons the Armscor team shirt.
For those that know Athena, win or lose she's usually smiling and laughing. Of course over a 20 year shooting career it's been mostly winning for Athena, and that's not likely to change anytime soon. Photo: P. Erhardt
From her start as a bored little girl at her father's shooting match to one of the best shooters in the world, Athena Lee has left an indelible mark on two shooting communities and she still has more to accomplish.
And though she has left her home in the Philippines, she's found a home here in America. Considering her long record of accomplishment in the shooting sports, you should be real glad she did. Having spent time with Athena over the last couple years I know I am.
...Of course I don't have to compete against her, so that's easy for me to say
- Paul Erhardt, Editor, the Outdoor Wire Digital Network
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