Ask Dan Kratt what inspired his daughter, fifth-grader Susannah, to sign up for archery classes this fall, and he’ll respond with three words.
The Hunger Games.
When Susannah showed up for the first day of the introductory course offered by Howard County Recreation & Parks, she was not alone. About half of the 12 participants in her class were girls — and all had seen “The Hunger Games” at least once (one claims to have watched it eight times … so far).
“This is the fourth year we’ve offered archery, and it has grown steadily up until this year,” explains Matt Medicus, the adventure, nature and outdoors coordinator for Rec & Parks and one of its 13 certified archery instructors. “Since ‘The Hunger Games,’ we’ve seen an increased interest from girls that took our numbers way up.”
Medicus and his fellow instructors say archery has benefited from increased exposure recently with kids wanting to emulate heroes like Katniss Everdeen from “The Hunger Games” books and movie, Hawkeye from “The Avengers” and Merida from “Brave.” The Summer Olympic Games provided a boost as well.
It all came together in a perfect storm over the summer that culminated in an incredibly high demand for archery classes this fall.
“We originally planned for about 100 spots, but the demand was so high we doubled the courses to accommodate 100 more,” Medicus says. “Then we expanded to include 40 more. So we went from thinking we were going to serve 100 to actually enrolling 240.”
The phenomenon is not unique to Howard County. Bob Sales, president of the Maryland Archery Association, says every one of the group’s 18 chapters across the state has reported an increase in class enrollment.
“In many cases the number of students in beginner classes doubled and sometimes even tripled,” he says, adding that he isn’t surprised. “Archery is a great activity for any age. It teaches you how to be disciplined, and every week you can see your own improvement, so it’s not hard to see why picking up a bow can become very addictive.”
Teresa Iaconi, marketing and public relations director for USA Archery, agrees.
“We’ve seen a major increase in archery participation, from a 25 percent increase in individual membership to a huge boost in social media interaction. Competitions are larger than they have been in many years, and our Junior Olympic Archery Development clubs across the country are telling us that they are seeing record numbers of archers,” she says. “We attribute a lot of this to the continued presence of archery in pop culture, but also to our Olympic and Paralympic Teams’ medal-winning performances in London. Archery was the most-watched sport during NBC’s first week of Olympic coverage, and that created lots of new archery fans who are very excited about their new favorite sport.”
That’s right — archery even beat out basketball, averaging about 1.5 million viewers whenever it aired. That’s no surprise considering the United States has the top-ranking athletes and teams in six of archery’s eight categories. In fact, Katniss actress Jennifer Lawrence’s archery coach for “The Hunger Games” was Team USA’s Khatuna Lorig, a five-time Olympian.
Shooting with the confidence and accuracy of Katniss Everdeen or an Olympian seems far away early one autumn Saturday on an open field in Rockburn Park. Three targets are set up 25 yards from a stand that holds about 15 fiberglass bows, and orange cones act as quivers for handfuls of arrows.
Instructors Michele Wright and Ed Palmer review the basics for a group of beginners, including the proper shooting stance. The body should be perpendicular to the target with feet shoulder-width apart. Make a hook with three fingers, and grab the bow string with the tips. Draw back to the anchor point (the corner of your smile) and release.
Six archers shoot, and the arrows of three thunk on the heavy targets. The rest fall short or sail over the target onto the grass.
“Our goal is to teach them the basics of archery and of safety so they can have fun and no one gets hurt,” Wright says. “And we try to do as much one-on-one as we can.”
Across the service behind the archers is a field with a rec league soccer game going on. Nearby is a youth football game.
“Not every kid is adept at team sports, and individual activities like archery are a good way to build confidence and concentration,” says Palmer.
Medicus agrees. “It teaches a lot of the same things — hand-eye coordination, focus, perseverance — but you don’t need a whole team to play. It’s all up to you and what you are capable of.”
Ellicott City resident Rachel Coates says that’s one reason she considered when signing up her sons Max, 13, and Ethan, 11.
“Some kids are not so much into team sports and archery is something that gets them outside and having fun,” she says. “They can do it individually or together right in the backyard.”
Ben Morrill, 14, of Columbia, had wanted to learn more about archery ever since his neighbor got a bow and target two years ago.
“It just looks really cool and it’s something you can do in the backyard or in the woods,” he says. “It’s harder than it looks, though. It takes a lot more strength than I thought to pull back the bow string, but it’s a lot of fun.”
A few schools in Howard County have archery equipment, which is how Alex Rennich, 14, of Elkridge was introduced to the sport.
“I did it in P.E. and I really like it,” she says. Before a recent class, her father, Mike Rennich, talked to the instructors about what type of bow would be best to buy for his daughter.
“There aren’t too many activities that the whole family can do together, but archery is one of them,” he says. “We have a big backyard and going out there to shoot is something that’s easy to schedule when we’re home together.”
Medicus says that while archery is prohibited on parkland in Howard County, there are no laws restricting it in the yards of residents, as long as there is adequate room to shoot safely and there are no homeowners association rules against it. But if you want to practice shooting at an authentic range, you’ll have to look outside Howard County.
“There are no public archery facilities in Howard County. The closest are in Westminster, Sykesville and Anne Arundel County,” he says. “We’d love to see a facility here in the future, but those things take time.”
There are no archery pro shops either. The closest is Bass Pro Shops in Arundel Mills, where those interested in archery can find beginner equipment starting at around $30.
Classes for kids as young as 9, as well as parent and child together, resume in the spring.
“I think next spring we’re going to start earlier since we’ve had such interest,” Medicus says, adding that he hopes even more families will be interested in checking it out. “There’s a misconception that archery is just guys in camo in the woods hunting, but there’s so much more than that. Some do pursue hunting, but target archery is a huge sport that is growing all the time.
“We just want interested kids to sign up, come out and have fun in the classes,” he says. “We’ll give them what they need for a good foundation, and they can grow from there.”
Fun facts about archery
• A toxophilite is a student or lover of archery.
• A quiver is the bag that holds the arrows, while the fletching is the feathers on the end of an arrow.
• Compared to other popular sports, shooting sports have some of lowest occurrences of injury. Archery’s injury rate is 0.1 percent, which is slightly lower than paintball and trap and skeet shooting.
• Historians believe people have been using bows and arrows for at least 25,000 years, possibly longer, based on arrowheads discovered in Africa.
• Archery was first included as an Olympic sport in the 1900 games. It was discontinued in 1924 due to a lack of international rules, but it was reintroduced in 1972 for the Munich games.
• When competing in the Olympics, archers must engrave their initials on each arrow.
• Just because you’re right-handed doesn’t mean you’ll be shooting with your right hand. In archery, archers shoot according to the dominant eye. Some right-handed folk are actually left-eye dominant – and vice versa – and pull the bowstring back with the left hand. If you try to shoot with your nondominant eye, it will throw your aim off.
• The distance between an Olympic archer and the target is 70 meters (about 76 yards).
• Men constitute about 66 percent of the archery population.
• USA Archery membership has increased from 279 clubs in 2010 to 540 clubs in 2012.
Sources: American Sports Data, World Archery Center, World Archery Federation, USA ArcheryCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun