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  • Will Martin

This is how Chip Madren shoots skeet


Chip Madren is a Range Safety Officer at Clybel Shooting Range near Mansfield, Georgia.

As a low, November sun cooks off the morning chill, 23-year-old Chip Madren removes two spent shells from his shotgun. It’s a 20-gauge, a beautiful Beretta "over-and-under" shotgun with fine chisel work on its bright receiver.

Chip is shooting skeet, a sport in which clay targets—called pigeons or birds—are thrown into the air by machines to replicate the flight of real birds for competitors to shoot.


Earlier, when Chip removed the Beretta from its cloth-lined, logo case, he said with a look of discomfort that he wasn’t showing off. He explained that the gun is his most-prized possession, and then he beamed a smile that could have been a wink.

Chip slides new shotshells into the gun’s barrels, then closes its action with a ‘click.’

He shoulders the firearm, pointing it neutrally in what’s called “ready position.” An electronic counter beeps four times, then the steel arm of the skeet machine hurtles a clay pigeon into the air with a mechanical thump. Chip swings the gun into the path of the clay, then fires. Twenty-five yards down range, the pigeon explodes into orange dust and a sprinkling of terracotta remnants.

Skeet-shooting is all about timing. “You can’t aim,” Chip says. “If you try to aim, you will run out of time, and the clay will be too far away when you shoot.”

The trick is to understand the speed and trajectory of the pigeon in flight. You meet the pigeon with the shot. In a way, you are shooting into the future.


Chip removes the spent shells from the gun. White smoke steams from its barrels.


“Do you want me to teach you how to shoot?” he asks, flashing another smile that could be a wink.


Taunting is Chip’s way of clearing the air.

You see, Chip doesn’t shoot like other shooters. For one thing, he shoots from a seated position, which in his case, is a euphemistic way of saying that he shoots from a wheelchair. He is also legally blind.


In 2010, Chip was diagnosed with Anaplastic Metastatic Medulloblastoma, a brain cancer. He was 13 years old at the time.

Anaplastic Metastatic Medulloblastoma is a rapidly growing tumor of the cerebellum, the lower, rear portion of the brain responsible for balance, large muscle movements related to posture, and fine motor control of the extremities—basically everything you need to shoot skeet.


The smell of burned gunpowder surrounds Chip. The shotgun lies open on his lap.


Chip’s hand trembles as he tries to slide a fresh shell into the gun’s lower barrel. He misses slightly. He tries again. This time, the shell meets the opening at an angle, but wobbles true, sliding down.


Chip loads the upper barrel, and clicks the gun shut. He’s ready to fire.


*****


The head and shoulders of an enormous red stag that Chip killed in New Zealand hangs above the fireplace at the Madren home; its antlers stretch the width of the mantle. Chip harvested the stag on a special hunt sponsored by Safari Club International.

It’s late November, and a Christmas tree fills a corner of the room; its lights twinkle in the stag’s glass eyes, making the animal seem alive.


In Chip’s bedroom, four shoulder-mounted bucks hang above his bed; their antlers spread over his pillows like branches. Across the room, large white teeth smile from a bookshelf—a preserved alligator head and a bear skull, trophies collected on special hunts. Framed photographs of Chip posing with harvested game animals pack the shelves.

Chip’s mother, Lea Madren, kneels in front of his bed, and spreads strands of beads onto the carpet. “These are Chip’s Beads of Courage,” she says.


Lea Madren and Chip's "Beads of Courage"

The strands are arranged in long loops like Mardi Gras beads tied into bundles with ribbon.


Chip’s beads come in 21 different colors, not counting a handful of special ones made by local artisans. Each color signifies some procedure or event during Chip’s cancer treatment. Orange beads represent times that a port was implanted or removed; black beads represent pokes with needles; and glow-in-the-dark beads are for radiation treatments.

“They’ve been in his head five times,” Lea says. “Those were the big surgeries.” She thumbs the beads.


The beads tell the story of Chip’s struggle better than memory ever could. Chip has endured too many pokes, prods, and procedures for him to remember all of them. Hundreds of physical therapy sessions. Scans. Treatments. Years of care.


And there are a thousand beads on the carpet, each some milestone during Chips recovery.


“There is a contest at the hospital to see who has the most beads,” Chip says. “The doctors and nurses weigh them every year to give the kids something to look forward to.”


Chip smiles. “I won a few times,” he says.


“See, the thing about brain cancer,” Lea says, “is that once you survive the grueling cancer treatment, you have to figure out how to live with a brain injury as well.”


After the surgeries, Chip could not swallow or talk for a year, and he still faces challenges with communication. Chip’s feeding tube was removed only a year and a half ago. It had been installed for eight years.


But Chip has turned a major corner. His cancer has been in remission for 10 years, which means that he now gets MRIs every other year, instead of every two or three months like when the ordeal began.

“Ten years is a big deal,” Lea says. “At 10 years, he has a 5 percent chance of relapse. The odds have flipped from 95 percent to 5 percent.”

The beads slip from Lea’s hand to the carpet. She thumbs each one as it crosses her fingers like time and experience are tactile things, possessions to be cherished or cast aside.

Lea releases the strand, and the beads clatter to the floor: a pile of colorful glass.


*****


Lea and Chip’s father, Ken Madren, didn’t know Chip was sick until the cancer had almost killed him.

Early signs of medulloblastoma are easy to miss. They include flulike symptoms, dizziness, and coordination problems.

Frequent falls can indicate the presence of a brain tumor. But for a kid as active as Chip, and with two rambunctious younger brothers, falls were routine in the Madren home.

“Scrapes, bruises, broken bones…we’d seen it all,” Lea says. Even so, in the end it was a fall that marked the transition between life before cancer and life after cancer for the family.


While on a wakeboarding trip, Chip passed out after a wipeout on his board. His younger brother had to pull him from the water, and when Chip “came to,” he couldn’t remember anything about what had happened.

“We thought he may have suffered a mild concussion during the fall,” Lea says. “He seemed fine to us, but it was definitely something for us to keep an eye on.”

But Chip wasn’t fine.

During a doctor’s visit a few days after the wakeboarding trip, Lea told Chip’s physician about the incident at the lake. What could have caused the blackout?

One by one, the doctor was able to rule out likely causes of Chip’s symptoms. He was even tested for Lyme Disease, but the result was negative.


Finally, the doctor suggested that Chip have an MRI.

“Looking back,” his mother says, “I think the doctor suspected what was going on from the very beginning.”


Things happened fast. The doctor scheduled the MRI for later in the day, and a few hours following the scan, Chip was having brain surgery to lessen pressure in his skull. The tumor was limiting the flow of cerebrospinal fluid between his brain and spine at the brainstem.

“The doctors said that Chip was less than a week away from seizing up and dying,” Lea says.

A major surgery to remove the tumor was performed two days later. It was an 11-hour operation, and there was a chance that it would kill him.

“By that time, the shock had worn off,” Lea says. “I understood that I could be moments away from losing my son.”

But Chip made it through the surgery. And he made it through the surgeries that followed. And the chemo. And the radiation therapy. A thousand beads and 10 long years.


Frequent doctor visits are still a part of Chip’s life. The chemotherapy his body has endured over the years has decreased his bone density, and broken bones are a constant danger. His right foot is currently in a cast from a fracture that occurred in his bedroom a week ago.


So how does Chip shoot skeet?

“A lot of practice,” his mother says. Just as Chip had to relearn how to talk and eat after the cancer, he has had to relearn how to shoot.

And for Chip, learning to shoot skeet again has required dedication, dedication by the caseload—30-pound, 135-clay, cases of dedication.


*****


Four years ago.

“We tiptoed down the hallway,” Lea says. “Chip, Ken, and I, along with Stan Elrod, our game warden friend. We wanted to thank Mark Williams for spending the day with us.”

Georgia Department of Natural Resources Commissioner, Mark Williams, had invited the family to visit department headquarters in Atlanta. Williams gave them a tour of the offices and took them across the street to meet the Governor in the capitol building. Chip had even been allowed onto the Senate floor.

Now back at DNR headquarters, voices drifted into the hall from open doorways as they passed. Interesting items were on display; they’d been brought to the building from across the state, and included a taxidermized bald eagle, rare turtle shells, and a collection of Amerindian pottery.

Commissioner Williams greeted them at his office door. The Madrens thanked him for a wonderful day, and after talking for a little while, everyone said goodbye.


But as Chip and his parents turned to go, Commissioner Williams looked at Chip, and said: “If there is ever anything that I can do for you, just let me know.”

Chip stopped his wheelchair and looked up at the man. “Well, there is something…” he said.

Chip’s parents glanced at one another. A question was in the look. They had no clue what Chip might be up to.

Commissioner Williams probably hadn’t expected a request from Chip so soon, and perhaps he was a little caught off guard. If so, he didn’t miss a beat. “Okay, shoot,” he said.


“I want a job. I mean…I want to work here,” Chip said.

“And help get more handicapped people into the woods. I know we can’t make the whole woods handicap accessible, but I know we could get more people like me out there.”


Everyone was silent. One second ticked by. Two seconds. Three.

“Okay,” Williams said. Maybe he shrugged. “What do you have in mind?”


“And that’s how I got my job,” Chip says.

It’s clear that Chip enjoys telling the story. “My mom and dad’s eyes were like (saucers),” he says.


“Our jaws dropped,” says Lea, and for an instant, her eyes really do look as big and round as saucers.

Chip and his mother fall into laughter, and the story is over.


Chip began his work with Georgia DNR by inspecting Wildlife Resources Division shooting ranges across the state and offering suggestions about how they could be improved. Now he works as a Range Safety Officer at Clybel Shooting Range near Mansfield, Georgia.

“Getting that job was really nothing short of life-saving for him,” Lea says. “Because it gave him a purpose and a whole other life and occupation.”

And the timing was perfect.


“We had stopped trying to recover, and started to try to live,” Lea says.

“We decided that this is better. Better doesn’t look like we thought it was going to look, better looks like this, and we’ve got to become okay with that,” she says.


*****


The author and Chip Madren at Clybel Shooting Range

Back at the shooting range, Chip watches a group of shooters begin a game of skeet. The explosion of the first shot barks above the voices of the men behind the firing line.


Everyone must follow the safety instructions Chip gave them when they arrived.

Chip’s job is to facilitate a good day of shooting for visitors, which requires, at a minimum, that no one gets shot. Safety violations must be addressed immediately. It is an important job.

Wind whips across the skeet field in gusts that bite through fabric like a thousand needle-sharp teeth. Chip’s face is flushed.


The trick is to dress in layers. Chip is wearing a black fleece vest with “Georgia DNR” embroidered in white lettering on its left breast. Beneath the vest, he wears a bright red hooded sweatshirt that indicates that he is the Range Safety Officer on duty.

The temperature is dropping. He may need to don a heavier jacket before he hauls the day’s trash to the green dumpster.


The 60-gallon trash bins will contain hundreds of empty shotgun shells when Chip collects them later. It’s difficult, but he can lug them to the dumpster one at a time in his electric wheelchair—three bins means three trips—but the regular trash is easier. There’s not much that he can’t do on the range.

“How do you know that you can’t do something if you’ve never tried to do it?” Chip says.


*****


Mechanically, we humans must push or pull against something to apply strength or orient ourselves in space. Just as a boxer pushes against the mat with his legs to generate the hip-rotation required to throw a powerful punch, a skeet shooter plants his feet to provide the leverage needed to rotate the upper-body as a single mechanical unit, like the turret of a tank, as he swings a shotgun into the path of a clay pigeon.


Because Chip shoots from a wheelchair, he can’t rotate that way. Instead, he uses his back muscles to twist along the arc of the movement. It’s more difficult to achieve a smooth swing of the gun this way, because small muscle groups must work in tandem throughout the motion.


But Chip doesn’t see like other shooters either. His field of vision is severely limited, especially in the left and lower fields.

But even where Chip can see, the image is spotty.

When shooting skeet, Chip can see the clay pigeon if it is in front of a solid background, but if it flies in front of a complicated background—a tree barren of leaves in the winter, for example—he loses it in the broken pattern of the limbs. As Chip shoots, he anticipates where the clay will be when the shot reaches it, even though he often can’t see the clay at all.


Making the shot is almost impossible. Almost.


But Chip can do many things that seem impossible. And his message to people in similar circumstances is that if he can do amazing things, they can too. Never be afraid to try.


“Before I started working, I did a lot of hanging around the house and doing nothing,” Chip says, and shakes his head. “It’s not really living. You can’t just sit there.”

“Life’s too short for watching TV and playing video games,” says Chip. “You’ve got to stay busy.”


“I love my job,” he says. “I’m working and getting paid a little bit—and it is work, but I enjoy it.”


When Chip is not on duty at Clybel, he travels to other shooting ranges and Wildlife Management Areas to promote handicap accessibility. Because of his work, gravel trails have been paved; push-button door operation has been installed at some facilities; and more wheelchair bars have been placed in DNR bathrooms across the state.


Chip has received the lifetime maximum of radiation therapy. He says that more treatment would “kill everything.” But he says that he’s not afraid.

“I’ve been through some pretty bad stuff, and there ain’t much that I’m afraid of anymore,” he says.

Chip’s family operates a 501c3 nonprofit called Chip’s Nation that raises money for organizations that have touched Chip’s life. Last year, they raised $271,000 for K9 Assistance, Outdoor Dream Foundation, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and CURE, an organization that funds cancer research.


“Other than (my nonprofit work), my goal is just to keep living, you know? To take obstacles as they come, to do the best I can, to keep moving forward no matter what comes my way,” Chip says.


He pauses. The subject is serious, but suddenly a smile spreads across his face—a smile that could be a wink.


“What are my goals?” Chip beams. “Well, what animals are in season right now?”


Right now.




For more information about Chip Madren and Chip’s Nation, please visit chipsnation.org.


Note: This story was written in December of 2020.

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