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USA Shooting Mourns Passing of Rifle Great Ernie Vande Zande

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (October 2, 2018)

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Marksmanship UnitThe USA Shooting community is once again mourning the death of one of its greatest competitors and ambassadors with the passing of rifle standout Ernest J. Vande Zande. Vande Zande passed away Saturday at the age of 70 at his home after a protracted battle with pancreatic cancer. 

Vande Zande was born April 23, 1948 in McCook, Nebraska. He was preceded in death by his good friend Lones Wigger, a Hall-of-Fame rifle shooter in his own right, who passed away from the same cancer in December 2017. He was also preceded in death by his mother Lenore Vande Zande, grandmother Luella Wyatt, and aunt Ada Wyatt. 

Along with a brilliant shooting career, Vande Zande was known for the care and compassion he extended for those closest to him and especially the shooting community he loved.   

In 1999, he established an endowment fund carrying his mother’s name (Wyatt Vande Zande Foundation), to provide funding to organizations with educational programs for battered women.  

He attended Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky and competed in the sport of rifle where he earned four year All American honors, and four National Championships. He graduated in 1971 with a degree in Business Administration. He was inducted into the Murray State University Sports Hall of Fame in 1988. To his death, he continued to help and support the Racer rifle team behind his signature line of “It’s great at State,” and he left an indelible mark that will stand the test of time.   

“I don’t know how many people asked me who is that guy always saying ‘It’s great at State!,” said Alan Lollar, current head coach for the Murray State Rifle Team. “Ernie was more than an alumnus and there is no doubt he was proud of being from Murray State. Ernie and Bill Beard spearheaded a fundraising campaign that has meant the world to our team, but he was more than a fundraiser. He was a great shooter that tirelessly helped any shooter that would listen and show commitment to excellence. He was my mentor, always there to listen, give an opinion, but always support. I would not be here without him. Most of all he was a friend, one of the best people I have ever known. If it is “Great at State” it’s because Ernie helped make it that way.”  

To honor Ernie, MSU will create the first individual rifle award in school history, which will celebrate the highest prone average rifle athlete each year.  

Vande Zande’s involvement impacting the sport he loves is nothing new. As project director, he was instrumental in the raising of the current USA Shooting headquarters and shooting range in Colorado Springs. He’s seen first-hand the impact of youth shooting when he served as Director of NRA Junior Olympic Shooting Program from 1982-88 and while serving as Assistant National Rifle Coach from 1986-1991.  He also helped coach and educate the shooting community extensively, something that 2012 Olympic gold medalist Jamie Corkish reflects on in remembering her late friend. 

“Not many people in my era took advantage of what he had to offer, but I was lucky enough to truly get to know him and he became a great mentor to me,” said Corkish. “I give Ernie a lot of credit for my success at the Games in 2012. I worked a lot with him in California that year as he was a person that was willing to pay great attention to detail. I remember at the smallbore range he sat for over an hour just watching where my trigger finger was on the trigger. There are very few coaches willing to put that much time towards watching a simple task. At an elite level, it is the small things that will make a difference and Ernie was willing to help recognize those small things. Every year after 2012, I would get an email from him on the anniversary of winning the gold, it was always a blessing to read. It’s been a tough year with two of my greatest shooting mentors passing within the same year, and they will be missed tremendously.” 

His last mission in the sport was serving as the fundraising chairman for the Lones Wigger Legacy Project that helped raise over $400,000 while creating a fitting celebration and tribute to America’s most distinguished shooting athlete. The fundraising effort has created opportunities to help support junior athletes well into the future, and an effort that wouldn’t have been nearly as successful absent Vande Zande’s drive and leadership. 

“In 1988, I tried out for the Olympic Team and came painfully close,” said former USA Shooting athlete, coach and employee Dave Johnson. “I lost control of my heart rate and focus and shot a poor final. I left the sport to pursue a family business and a future outside the sport. About three months later, I got a phone call from Ernie. He asked what I was doing and when I would be back in training. I told him I was going to move on with life after failing in the tryouts. At that point, he started yelling at me ‘why would you quit when you simply needed to get serious about a mental skills game! You’ve got just one thing to do!’ I was back in Colorado a few months later and worked a year straight on mental skills and control. I made the Olympic Team in 1992 mainly because of that phone call.” 

“Ernie continued mentoring me for years in competition, the Army, investing, career decisions, and as a coach," Johnson added.  "Ernie was passionate about the USA Team and developing athletes. He often asked me what he could do and what was needed. Ultimately, he joined the coaching staff as a volunteer assistant teaching wind, mental skills, training strategies, and lots of other life skills. His support of the team included time, passion, and financial help. He paid for training camps, guns, testing, travel—mostly anonymously. Ernie was a true mentor and friend to me and many others. In an age when many expect things to be given to them, often with no appreciation for where support comes from, I hope there are those that learn from and live his example going forward.” 

As a competitive shooter, Vande Zande more than held his own as well, earning the nickname as the “human benchrest” throughout his distinguished career.  In 1975, Vande Zande won a gold medal in rifle in the Pan American Games held in Mexico City. He followed that with a gold and two silvers in the 1979 Pan American Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Also in 1979, Vande Zande won a silver medal at the World Air Gun championships in Seoul, South Korea. In 1981, Vande Zande took five golds and set two world records at the Championship of the Americas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A year later, he took the bronze at the World Shooting Championships in Caracas, Venezuela.  In 1984, he missed qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Team by four tenths of a point. In total, Vande Zande claimed 36 team and individual championships and set more than 200 national records in shooting.  

An International Distinguished shooter, Vande Zande was the Smallbore Rifle Prone Champion at Camp Perry in 1980 and earned his place on nine Dewar teams. 

In August 1971, he was commissioned as an Army officer.  During his military career he served at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, US Army Marksmanship Unit (USAMU) at Ft Benning, Georgia, Company and Compound Commander at Camp To Bong Son, Korea. After 23 years of active and reserve service he retired as a Major.  

In addition, Vande Zande served as the Athlete Advisory Council Representative for Shooting to the United States Olympic Committee from 1988 to 1996. He was also appointed to the United States Shooting Team Foundation Board of Directors in 1990 and served on the NRA International Competitions Committee from 1988 to 1994. He served as U.S. Shooting Team Leader at the 1996 Olympic Games.

To honor Ernie Vande Zande, donations can be made to the Murray State University Rifle Team Endowment or to the Lones Wigger Legacy Endowment through this online form or by mail:

Make Check Payable to: USA Shooting

In the check Memo Line: Write in Lones Wigger Endowment/EVZ

Mailing Address: USA Shooting, Attn: Amber Aragon, 1 Olympic Plaza, Colorado Springs CO 80909

Editorial contributions provided by the Military Marksmanship Association, the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit, Murray State University and David Kimes.  

Categories: Press Releases