These San Antonio women are at home on the range

A retired Air Force colonel, a Bexar County court judge, and a stay-at-home mom are just a few San Antonio women who are up in arms — literally. These women, who on the surface may not seem to have much in common, share an intense love of shooting for sport. What’s the attraction? For some it’s about the competition. For others, it’s the time spent with family. But whether they prefer game, trap-or skeet, the one thing they all agree on is that there is a camaraderie that exists among female shooting enthusiasts that draws women from all walks of life to the sport.

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Col. Loretta Behrens
Walking through the Monte Vista home of retired Air Force Col. Loretta Behrens is like going on a domestic safari. A zebra rug is splayed across a living room floor not far from where an enormous cape buffalo head is mounted. A majestic leopard gazes down from a dining room wall, while a row of roe deer skulls oversees the kitchen. And that’s just on the first floor! Loretta and her husband have acquired these trophies from their extensive travels and hunting trips both personally and through their business, Expedition Adventures, a company that organizes small-group hunting and fishing trips in exotic locations like Kenya and Argentina. It was a concept born of her husband’s own trips to Africa, where he has enjoyed hunting big game for the past 30-plus years — something that doesn’t really appeal to Loretta. “I’m not a rifle shooter,” she explains. “I prefer a shotgun and the faster action of bird shooting.”

Loretta shot her first bird (well, two to be exact) in the 1980s on a dove hunt with the Texas Rangers. Although she bagged only two birds on that inaugural hunt, today Loretta loads her prized 12-gauge Perazzi and doesn’t stop until she reaches the legal limit. Her favorite game? Quail. “I love quail hunting because it is faster and more challenging,” she explains. “Plus you get to work with the dogs, which is always fun.” Loretta keeps her bird shooting skills sharp by practicing at the San Antonio Gun Club and participating in the Women’s Shooting League, a group she joined after settling in San Antonio in 2000.

You might think that someone who has shot red-legged partridges in Spain and hunted guinea fowl at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro would be nonplussed about what Texas has to offer. On the contrary, Loretta says that when it comes to the best environment for female hunters, you can’t beat South Texas. “I’ve lived in a lot of different places, and South Texas is the most welcoming for women who want to shoot,” she says, adding that she was pleasantly surprised at the number of females involved in the sport. “I’ve made many good friends here who share this common interest.”

 

UpFront-JanetMolakJanet Molak
When a friend talked Janet Molak into attending her first hunt more than two decades ago, the San Antonio native landed more than just a couple of doves — she landed a husband too! Today, Janet and Mike Molak still enjoy the sport that brought them together more than 23 years ago, and in the past three years, Janet has become extremely active on the trapshooting circuit. “I wanted a sport that was competitive but that was also an individual sport,” she explains. “I began taking lessons, and then I joined the Women’s Shooting League because I wanted to learn to shoot competitively.” Janet began entering competitions for fun and in order to get more comfortable in the competition arena. What she soon discovered was that shooting competitions were unlike any other type of sport she had experienced. Why? Because of the people. “These are the most welcoming and supportive women you could ever hope to meet,” she says.

During one competition in which she ran out of bullets, Janet recalls another competitor from Oklahoma coming over to offer her a shell and some pointers. “She was competing against me, but she went out of her way to help me,” Janet marvels. “That’s pretty typical of most of the women in this sport.” When she is not practicing at the Gun Club or taking part in a competition, Janet can be found at Keystone School, where she works as the events coordinator and serves as the assistant to the head of school. Her daughter will begin her junior year at Keystone in the fall, while her son just graduated from Alamo Heights. Both children are athletic and show an interest in their parents’ hobby, something that Janet encourages both personally and as the president of the Friends of the San Antonio Gun Club, an organization that until recently had been dormant. “We are a support group that provides financial aid to kids who are going to shooting competitions,” explains Janet, who has been actively resurrecting the organization through fundraising activities such as the making and selling of Gun Club Fiesta medals. “We just awarded our first grant in the spring of 2014 to the Trinity University shooting team,” she adds proudly.

Educating and helping the next generation of shooting enthusiasts, especially females, pursue their passion is something about which Janet feels strongly. “I think that teaching women proper gun handling and safety is necessary, not just to help them feel confident in what was once a male-dominant sport, but also for self-defense,” she says. But one of her favorite things about the sport itself is the fact that it is something that she and her husband can share for years to come. “It’s a passion we both enjoy,” she says.

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Judge Eugenia “Genie” Wright
The reasons that women flock to the shooting range are as varied as the women themselves. While some go to improve their average or train for competition, others simply go for the unique female bonding that can only occur among a group of women holding shotguns. Judge Genie Wright falls into the latter category. A self-described “duffer,” she has been a member of the Women’s Shooting League since 1997. “I do it for the fun and fellowship,” she says in her straightforward manner. “This is an incredibly diverse group of women.” If diversity is a requirement, Genie has it in spades. A Georgia native, she was 40 years old when she decided to attend law school at the University of Iowa.“It was my midlife crisis,” she jokes. The mother of three grown children, she and her husband (renowned organ transplant surgeon Dr. Francis Wright) have moved many times over the years as he built his career. In 1994 they settled in San Antonio, where Dr. Wright now serves as the director of organ transplantation for the Texas Transplant Institute and Genie has been on the bench in Bexar County Court 7, one of only two domestic violence courts, since being elected in 2010.

With such high-profile careers, you wouldn’t think that there would be time for the pursuits of pleasure, but Genie manages to enjoy a wide variety of interests, from savoring good food and wine to ardently supporting opera. She and her husband are season ticket holders at the Houston Grand Opera and travel to Santa Fe annually for shows.
Her leisure-time activities include an extensive amount of service to the community she loves. She sits on the boards of the Blood and Tissue Center and BEAT AIDS and is active with Impact San Antonio. But even with such a full docket, Genie can still be found participating in the twice-yearly Women’s Shooting League events and honing her skills at the Gun Club once or twice a month.

“It’s just a good environment,” she says of her commitment to the sport. “There are some days where you don’t hit anything, and no one cares. We’re still going to clap and cheer for each other.”

 

UpFront-BannackStacie Banack
Don’t let the fact that Stacie Banack is a self-described “girlie girl” fool you. Hand this gal a gun and stand back! One of the top 25 female trap shooters in the United States, Stacie tells a story that is nothing short of miraculous. Born and raised in San Antonio, Stacie, who works as a pharmaceutical rep, was always a right-hand, right-eye shooter. The removal of a benign brain tumor in 2004 changed all that and with remarkable results. “The surgery completely altered the way I shoot,” she says. “I am now a left-hand, left-eye shooter.” And one of the top shots in the country as well! After competing for only three short years, Stacie has won countless titles, including the Lady Grand American Handicap Championship in 2013 in Sparta, Ill., and, most recently, the O/S Lady Double’s Championship and the O/S Lady High All Around at the Oklahoma State Shoot in El Reno. Earlier this year, she made both the All American Ladies Trapshooting Team and the Ladies Texas Trapshooting Team, and this petite blonde dynamo shows no signs of slowing down.

“It is so much fun to find a sport as an adult that I really enjoy,” says Stacie, who practices at the Gun Club at least three times per week and participates in 10 or more shoots each year. A member of the Women’s Shooting League, she took skeet lessons at the Gun Club, but eventually settled on trap as her sport for the variation. “It’s three games in one and it’s always challenging in different ways,” she says. Competitions and titles aside, a large part of the draw for Stacie is the fact that it is something both she and her husband of 23 years can take part in together, and that you don’t have to be particularly athletic to enjoy it. And this confident shooting champ finds gun handling empowering. “This is stereotypically a male sport,” she says. “But I have found that women can do it as well as men and often even better.”

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Kimberly Blackburn
Kimberly Blackburn is the embodiment of the “outdoorsy” type. Fishing, hunting, golfing, water skiing … she does them all. It’s no wonder then that she has proudly served on the board of the San Antonio Gun Club since 2009 and is the current president of the Women’s Shooting League, a role that allows her to combine her love of shooting with her love of philanthropy. After arriving in San Antonio from Austin in 2000, she immersed herself in community service, including serving on the golf tournament committee of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and hosting monthly birthday parties at the Children’s Shelter. A noncompetitive shooter, she joined the Women’s Shooting League as a way to make friends in her new city, and now her responsibilities include hiring and maintaining volunteer instructors, organizing post-shoot potlucks and socials and ordering awards and gifts for participants.

Although she primarily shoots trap, Kimberly enjoys dove and quail hunts, and she brings her 8-year-old daughter along not only to “bird dog” but also to develop a love of the sport and a respect for guns. “I want her to learn gun safety and to feel comfortable around guns,” explains Kimberly. “She’s already asked me when she can start shooting,” she laughs. “She wants to be the next league president.”

With Kimberly setting the example for her daughter, that doesn’t seem out of the question.

 

 

UpFront-EliseElise Cox
It was love at first shot when Elise Cox’s husband presented her with a gun and made sure she learned how to use it. His goal was for her to accompany him on his hunting trips. Elise, who is one of the founders of the Women’s Shooting League, took her newfound passion a few steps further, jumped right into competitive shooting and earned the title of “Most Improved Women’s Shooter” at the Gun Club in 1993/94. Primarily a skeet shooter, Elise realized that there were other women who shared her enthusiasm for the sport, and she saw a real opportunity for the Gun Club to increase its membership by focusing on this demographic. In 1997 the Women’s Shooting League was born, co-founded by Elise. “I knew if we could provide a nonthreatening, noncompetitive environment, that we could attract more women to the sport,” she says. “We are now the largest ladies’ league in the country with 51 members and a waiting list.”

The league began by meeting on Tuesday nights after the Gun Club was closed, and women from all levels were encouraged to come take lessons from certified instructors. The No. 1 rule of the league? No men allowed! “We designed the league to help women improve in a friendly, all-female environment,” explains Elise. “We wanted them to feel comfortable.” Today, more than 15 years later, the league is on its second generation of female shooters and continues to draw members of all ages and skill levels. Elise, who owns the company Ad Graphics, became a certified Level One instructor and holds the distinction of being only the second female president of the Gun Club. She enjoys spending time on the family’s ranch with her husband and two grown daughters, both of whom are league shooters. “This sport doesn’t know sex or age,” says Elise of why she and her family enjoy it. “It’s like riding a bike in that once you learn it, you always have it.”

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Susan Thornton
Sometimes an idea comes along that makes so much sense you can’t believe no one has thought of it before. That’s exactly what happened when dove hunter Bob Thornton came up with the idea for the Texas Dove Hunter’s Association. In just two short years, the member-based organization became so successful that his wife, Susan, left her career as a teacher and high school guidance counselor to take over as the full-time director of operations. “We had 50 members state wide one year ago, and today we have 700,” says Susan. “People just couldn’t believe there wasn’t an association for dove hunters in existence.” With a philosophy of “growing the next generation of hunters and wildlife ambassadors,” the organization began with a comprehensive website for dove hunting enthusiasts (www.texasdovehunters.com), but it has evolved considerably and continues to grow, with a focus on philanthropic activities that include youth programs and scholarships. As the mother of two boys, Susan says she feels strongly that educating kids on wildlife and safe hunting practices is crucial to instilling a healthy respect for guns.

“We really feel that kids who learn to respect guns and grow up shooting won’t be the kids who go in and shoot up schools,” Susan says adamantly. To foster that initiative, the Texas Dove Hunter’s Association started a school program last year that awarded two $250 scholarships to high school seniors for college. In 2014, the number of scholarships grew to six $500 scholarships. To be considered, students submitted essays on their favorite family hunting memory. “It is so refreshing to read about kids spending time with their families,” says Susan, who says that her own passion for hunting is born out of the fact that it has given her an activity that she can participate in with her husband and two grown sons. “It was either I stayed home or I joined in,” she laughs. The family bonding is something that Susan hopes to share with families who may not have the opportunity otherwise. She is currently designing and implementing two programs through the association that will make it easier for those children who want to hunt to take advantage of the sport. The first is a mentoring program targeted to children who have the desire to learn, but do not come from hunting families. The second is “Special Hunts for Special People” that will make hunting accessible for handicapped youth. The program will provide these children with the adaptive equipment necessary to get them out in the field with their families. Here, they will learn every aspect from gun safety to the cleaning of the bird, and they will celebrate with a cookout on the grounds. Susan, who helped start the Make-A-Wish chapter in the Rio Grande Valley, knows firsthand the joy that comes from fulfilling the desire of a child for whom something like this might be impossible.

“We want it to be a family affair and for these kids to have something special that they will always remember,” Susan explains.

Between fundraising shoots, member meetings and running the association, Susan has a full plate, but she still manages to find the time to hunt with her husband and sons, creating her own lifelong memories. “There is a season for everything, and this is an amazing season right now,” she says happily. “I am excited to see what is on the horizon.”

By Bonny Osterhage
Photography by Casey Howell