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National Archery in the Schools Program hits the target

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John Leck will never forget the look on the face of the paralyzed boy sitting in his wheelchair. When the arrow left the bow that had been strapped onto the eighth-grader's arm, a mixture of wonder and excitement was apparent as he watched it sail toward the target inside the gymnasium at Rocky Hill Middle School in Clarksburg.

"It was really cool," Leck, a science teacher at the Montgomery County school, recalled one day last week. "It showed him something that he didn't think he could do."

The student, who had been paralyzed months before in an automobile accident, was taking part in an in-school archery program that had been introduced in Maryland in 2005. Eight years later, the National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP) will hold its first Maryland championship on Feb. 23 at Hagerstown Community College.

The champion from the one-day competition that is expected to attract between 150 and 200 fourth- through 12th-grade students from more than 50 schools will be eligible to compete in NASP's national championship in May in Louisville, Ky., a week after the Kentucky Derby.

Roy Grimes, who started the first state-supported, in-school archery program in the country in Kentucky 12 years ago and now is NASP's president, said that last year's event went into the Guinness World Records with 7,804 archers shooting at the same location on the same day.

"We would have broken the record back in 2006, but it cost $7,000 to have it entered as a record and we didn't want to spend the money," Grimes said.

Lou Compton, the president of the Maryland Bowhunters Society and the state's NASP coordinator, said the archery in the schools program "is bigger than little league baseball" based on the number of participants (10.2 million in 2011) across the country.

While the growth in Maryland has been "stymied" since the Department of Natural Resources was forced to drop funding because of budget cuts, Compton said archery in the schools "reaches out to a broad spectrum of kids" because success in the sport is not based solely on size and natural athletic ability.

"You don't have to be the strongest or fastest," said Compton, who began shooting a bow as a young child growing up in Highlandtown. "You don't have to be the star quarterback on the football team or the center on the basketball team."

Grimes has seen students who were barely interested in school completely changed by NASP. He recalled a high school girl in Kentucky who was considered "a Goth" and dressed in dark clothing every day and wrote in her diary that no one at the school talked to her for a month.

'When we started NASP at her school, the teacher got her to come down off the stage and try it," Grimes said. "When she hit the target a few times, she became a different person. She even starting high-fiving the principal."

Another Kentucky student, Ryan Long, recently had the first perfect 300 score in the history of the program.

"One of the best benefits about this program is that it offers a different type of lifetime activity for children and adults alike, especially if they don't succeed in standard sports such as football or basketball, it gives them something else to excel in," said Dan Mahoney, who started NASP at the Severn School in 2008.

That's not to say it's easy to shoot an arrow into the target 10 or 15 meters away, as the competitors will be required to do.

Mahoney, a physical education teacher and a certified athletic trainer at the Severna Park school, said "there's a lot of mental activity, focusing on the target, having to reflect on your shot, it really helps to develop good focusing skills. It's also very social, too."

Like many involved in the program, Mahoney had little experience in archery, having shot a bow "only a couple of times" growing up. Grimes, a former deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources said the initial costs of the program mostly involved training enough teachers to instruct their students.

But Grimes said NASP has grown rapidly to now include 47 states (all but Delaware, Vermont and Rhode Island), six Canadian provinces and 10 other countries, in large part because of the financial support it receives from Mathews Arrows, which supplies the compound bows used at the 11,000 worldwide schools that now incorporate the program.

"They gave us a blank check," Grimes said. "It's always easier to do something when you have that."

Grimes said his initial interest in starting NASP was the fact that only three schools out of more than 2,000 across the state of Kentucky had some sort of archery program.

"We were concerned about losing a new generation [of hunter] because the number of hunting licenses had dropped for 17 straight years," Grimes said. "We needed to do something to shore it up. We wanted to go where the kids are and have them be with people they trust in an environment that is safe."

There are now 30,000 teachers instructing their students on the finer points of archery, Grimes said.

"We reached our goals [in Kentucky] for five years in three years," Grimes said. "It might be the first time in history that the government is ahead of schedule on something."

Compton admits it has been slow going in Maryland.

"We're down at the bottom end of the [national] scale," he said. "I think one of the reasons it hasn't grown in our school systems is that it doesn't get a lot of publicity [compared to other programs]."

That's where avid hunters like Kari Kephart come in.

Kephart, a former Mount St. Mary's track star who didn't start hunting until she met her husband, Jason, a taxidermist on the Eastern Shore, has now introduced NASP at two different schools where she worked.

Now an assistant principal at Maple Elementary in Cambridge, Kephart is starting the program there after seeing its benefits at Warwick Elementary in Dorchester County, where she taught second grade.

Kephart believes archery teaches "discipline and safety," and she said she has watched fourth- and fifth-graders who didn't like going to school improve their study skills and behavior after getting involved in NASP.

"It promotes success," Kephart said.

The popularity of the sport on the international level, particularly in the Olympics, has trickled down to NASP, Grimes and others said. Grimes can remember when he held the first Kentucky state championship back in 2001 and 40 contestants showed up. This year he expects more than 8,000.

"Our goal was to get kids off the couch and away from the video games, and teach them to relate to wildlife and wild places," he said.

It appears that NASP has hit a bullseye — many times over.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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