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Howard archers prepare to hit target at nationals

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Ask Matthew Jones to describe a sound technique for archery, and you could get one of several answers of varying depth.

If you're one of the youngsters that Jones instructs through Howard County Recreation and Parks, the answer is quite simple.

"I just tell them: stance, bring (the bow) up to your eye level, bring (the string) to the point of your mouth ... and just relax your fingers," said Jones, who will enter his senior year at Howard High School this fall.

Jones is one of three Howard County residents — along with Matthew Bitner-Parish and Victoria Bennett — training for the upcoming 130th U.S. Archery National Target Championships in Hamilton, Ohio, beginning July 23.

On a recent Sunday morning scoring round at the Genessee Valley Outdoor Learning Center, Jones boiled archery down to its essence as he and his fellow archers walked across the range to retrieve their arrows from the targets.

"Archery," Jones said, "is about shooting arrows."

For a more advanced archer, Jones can go into much greater detail, discussing the nuances of breathing and muscle control with an almost philosophical tone.

"You just take a deep zen breath. Relax your shoulders down. Focus in on the target, and just make sure you're keeping your core tight. Make sure you're staying relaxed," he said. "Pull (the string) to your face. Anchor in right under your jaw line, then you transfer a lot of your energy to your back muscles. You hold the shot and those back muscles in the lower trap(ezius) area, and then you just expand. Push the scapula, rotate it — however you want to think about it — toward your spine, and you just let the shot go. Relax your fingers and feel the string fall out of your hand."

Whoosh ... Thock.

If all goes as well, those are the sounds an archer will hear, with their arrow coming to rest in the center yellow ring of the target some 70 meters away.

"Some people have been shooting so long that parts of it are second nature, you don't need to think about any of it," said Bennett, an information assurance and systems engineering professional from Elkridge. "I'm just constantly staring at (the center of the target) and trusting my body to bring my actual sight on my bow into vision and then just pulling through from there.

"It's a wonderful feeling when you get it right, and not so great when you don't get it right. So you just think about it quickly and then push it aside and go back to thinking, 'I can do this, that doesn't matter'," she added. "We practice to get rid of our bad shots so when we're actually competing, we have our beautiful shots there."

Bennett, who grew up in Massachusetts and took up archery at an early age after trying it out on a family vacation in Saint Lucia, has competed in major tournaments before, including the Arizona Cup and the Gator Invitational in Florida earlier this spring.

"It's an amazing feeling when you're up there with all these different people from around the world. My very first eliminations ever I was shooting against a girl from Italy and it was really great to meet her, but it was really scary because I knew that she had to be good for her country to send her here," said Bennett, who has aspirations to one day compete in the Olympics. "I was really excited when I actually gave her a run for her money ... She won in the end but I was really close, only one point difference. That's the added benefit, meeting people from around the world who also have a love of the sport that we love here."

Bitner-Parish, the youngest member of the trio of Howard County archers heading to nationals, has a simple set of goals for the competition.

"I hope to finish in the top 10 and just shoot the best shots that I'm able to," said the 16-year-old Wilde Lake High School student.

And like Jones, Bitner-Parish is going into nationals with a detailed game plan to acheive his goals.

"It's a lot of muscle control. When you're coming back you don't want to put all of the weight of your bow into your biceps and triceps because that takes a lot of effort. You more want to shoot with the alignment of your bone structure ... using the big back muscles," he said. "Keeping a clean follow through is really important. If you're erratic and all over the place it's not going to go well. But if it's a good shot you don't hold too long and it's a clean follow through, then it should go pretty well."

Ted Light — who coaches Jones, Bitner-Parish and Bennett through the Oriole Archers of Baltimore and the Freestate Archers Junior Olympic Archery Development team — has been preparing the trio for their trip to nationals.

"Matt Parish is shooting better. He gets to shoot in a younger age division. He's been shooting very well. Now Matt (Jones) has got some stiffer competition because he's got the juniors," said Light, a Cockeysville resident with a decorated archery career. "Victoria's shooting really well. She's come a ways ... The key thing is once you get the skills down it's all about the head game. You've got to have your head together … I tell the kids just say this: I'm so good it's easy. You've got to keep it simple."

While Jones, Bitner-Parish and Bennett have modest goals for nationals, they are hoping that their trip will bring recognition to a problem that hits close to home: a lack of archery facilities in Howard County.

Even after the 2012 Summer Olympic competition, along with films like Brave, The Hunger Games series, and The Avenger,s have increased interest in the sport, young archers still have to travel up to an hour north for adequate training grounds.

"We would love to bring something to Howard County. A range where anyone can practice is our desire. We would love to have people join us and a lot of us are willing to help set up practices and coach," said Bennett, who coached archery in Massachusetts last summer before moving to Maryland. "We want a place to practice so we can get better and represent Maryland around the country. We wear a name tag on our quiver that says Maryland .

"We want to bring (archery) into the county and not just have it in the counties around us."

Origin stories

Standing around six-feet, five inches tall, Jones showed an initial interest in volleyball.

"I wasn't into sports that much. I was around 12 and my parents came back from Dick's Sporting Goods and they were like 'Here's a flier for an archery camp.' And I said 'OK, it's not volleyball, but I'll see how it goes.' So I went, I had a lot of fun, I did pretty good," he said. "After that I went to the 4H in Howard County, did some shooting there, went to state tournaments and stuff. Then I met Mr. Light at his JOAD program, and once I got entered in there, things took off."
Bitner-Parish came to the sport the way someone might have 100 years ago.

"I have a lot of people who are really into hunting in my family circles and I was really into it also, mainly with shotgun for bird hunting," said Bitner-Parish, who also plays soccer. "Then I had a friend who said 'You should try some bows some time' and I said 'all right, that could be pretty cool' and it just turned into a big thing. It sort of took over."

After entering JOAD classes after returning from her family vacation to St. Lucia, Bennett took a break from the sport.

"Unfortunately I was able to be in there for a year and they changed location so I had to quit. I picked (archery) up again in college and have been shooting off and on and got serious in the past three years," she said. "When I moved here a year ago, it was great to meet Coach Light and the Matts and it's a great team. I'm competing more and love it so much."

The pop culture effect

Though none of them got into archery because of movies, Jones, Bitner-Parish and Bennett have all watched with some amusement as others have tried out the sport after seeing a character fire arrows at larger than life monsters on the big screen.

"I teach (archery) for Howard County (Recreation and Parks), and I can see in my classes how kids are like 'I want to be like Katniss (from The Hunger Games, or (Merida) from Brave," Jones said. "It definitely does effect the popularity. But hey, the more movies come out, the more people shoot archery. I am perfectly fine with that. I would never argue with that."

Bitner-Parish has seen a swell of interest first-hand.

"The main club that I'm in where I practice with Ted Light, there are the main 15 and we've been in it for about a year-and-a-half now. The waiting list was like 50 people before 2012, and then with the Olympics, the Hunger Games, the Avengers, the waiting list is now at like 200 plus people to get into the club," he said. "So I think there's a large pique in interest when those sort of movies come out."

As a coach in Massachusetts, Bennett had to break the news to some of her young students that archery isn't quite as fantastical as it appears in adventure movies.

"The majority of the kids that were coming said 'Ah, from Brave! Or this is just like the Hunger Games!' and they'll be paying attention for awhile and then say 'Can I do rapid fire? Can I light an arrow on fire?'," she said. "The new wave is from the movies … There are a few who come and say they saw it on the Olympics, cause London was really big, so they're coming from all different places now."

Misconceptions

While most people understand the basics of archery, the discipline is much more complex than casually propelling an arrow at a target, Jones says.

"Archery is not an easy sport. It's also a sport, that's a thing a lot of people seem to forget. Because archery requires so much muscle, you need a really strong core, strong back, strong arms," Jones said. "You're standing up for hours at a time in really hot heat sometimes, and archers have to be really mentally tough, too. A lot of people just don't like that aspect, because you have to be focused, you have to be calm and patient, you can't get mad."

Bitner-Parish says that some of his classmates have trouble grasping the fact that archery is an Olympic sport, and not just a relaxing pastime.

"It's actually quite challenging. I've talked to people and they say 'Oh, why weren't you in school today?' and I say 'I was out in Arizona, I had an archery match out there.' And they say 'Why wouldn't you just do it in your backyard?'," he said. "I don't think they understand the scope of what we do, and that we're not just slinging wood arrows for a few hours. We're trying to hit rings at 70 meters for 100 arrows straight."

The cost of archery

Like golfers, archers can spend as little as $100 to get started in their sport, and as much as their pay check will allow to perfect their game.

"My very first bow was a wooden bow that cost like $100. I shot it bare bow which meant no extra sights or stabilizers or anything on it, and I actually got really good with it, because I really enjoyed just the feeling of shooting and just meeting the other people at the range," Bennett said. "I chose to go toward the Olympic-style bow because I felt like an upgrade … over the period of a year I started putting a sight on it and everything.

"At our shoots everybody is welcome. The wooden bow, the plastic bow, the $50 to the $500. Everybody is welcome."

Bitner-Parish says that archery is like golf in other ways, too.

"In golf, you can hit a ball 10,000 times and you'll have no idea what's going wrong. You can be hanging to the right all day and you'll have no idea, and that's really the same with archery … it really takes a lot of muscular discipline to really put the ball or the arrow right where you want it," he said. "A lot of people think 'if I buy the best equipment I'm going to become the best' when it's a lot more technique that's going to make you the best."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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