An Olympian’s Ties to the Horrors of Gun Violence

Jul 13, 2016

Longhorn Townley Haas is a newly minted Olympian and the future of the U.S. men’s 200 freestyle… He is also intimately acquainted to the epidemic of gun violence in America. Nine years ago, his sister Emily was among those shot in the Virginia Tech massacre… 

On the morning of April 16th, 2007, 10-year-old Townley Haas was sitting in elementary school in Richmond, Virginia. His oldest sister, Emily, was sitting in French class at Virginia Tech University a little over 200 miles away. Soon after 9am, a gunman, a senior English major by the name of Seung-Hui Cho barricaded the doors of Norris Hall and began executing classroom after classroom in one of the worst mass shootings in American history.

One of the rooms he entered was the one where Emily Haas was studying French. Seung-Hui Cho entered armed with two semi-automatic weapons. His executions continued, killing 11 of Haas’s classmates around her, before turning his gun on himself and committing suicide in that, the last room he would reach. Emily Haas had been shot twice in the head. But she was one of the lucky ones. The bullets grazed her skull and left her lucid enough to perform an act of extreme heroism. She managed to place an emergency call in quiet and kept police dispatchers on the line. Her call was credited with helping first responders to find the killer’s exact location.

When he was found dead in that room police discovered 203 live rounds left in his weapons. As State Police Superintendent William Flaherty stated at the time, “He was well prepared to continue on.”

The call placed by Townley’s sister Emily may have helped save untold lives. 32 people were killed that day at Virginia Tech. 17 more were wounded, Emily Haas among them.

In the wake of the massacre, their mother, Lori Haas, has become an outspoken advocate and organizer in the mission to end gun violence in this country. She has worked with a myriad of different organizations devoted to the cause, from Stop Gun Violence to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence to the Virginia Center of Public Safety to Protest Easy Guns to Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the list goes on. Like her daughter, Lori attended Virginia Tech, and has raised her family ever since in the Richmond, Virginia area. Survivor Emily is now married and an elementary school teacher; middle brother Wyatt is a student at William & Mary, while youngest sibling Townley has emerged as a rising star for Team USA.

It’s a heavy handed cliché around the Olympics, and sports in general, to declare great athletic achievement as “heroic.” It’s not. It’s impressive and inspiring and invokes many other lovely adjectives, but performing well in a sport does not a hero make. I suspect Townley Haas knows this better than most. Last spring at the NCAA Championships as a freshman, Haas scorched a 1:30.46 in the 200 yard free, breaking the NCAA and American record, and helping to lead his Longhorns to another NCAA team title. Two weeks ago in Omaha, he fulfilled that small pool promise by winning the men’s 200 free at the U.S. Trials. He’ll be in the medal hunt in Rio, and as has become custom, he’ll lead an American 800 free relay that will be a solid favorite for gold.

He’s at the start of a decorated and sure-to-be immensely successful career. But there are two heroes in his family, and he is not one of them.

That honor would fall to his sister and his mother. Sister Emily, a college student who acted with astonishing bravery in the face of the most terrifying moment a person can experience. And his mother Lori, a force committed to changing one of the most shameful aspects of America today – the scourge of gun violence and the unconscionable powers-that-be that refuse to change gun laws that continue to endanger every living person in this country.