When Mike Leiter practices archery at the Harford Bowmen club at Susquehanna State Park, it might not appear he is having fun.
Leiter, one of the most successful archers in the country, is a quiet person, especially when practicing. Each shot, even when he's not at the club and is just practicing at his home in Fallston, is a slow process.
He draws the bow back deliberately and takes several seconds to line up his shot. After the release, Leiter's stoic face doesn't change, even if he knows it was a bull's-eye.
"People would say it looks like I'm not having a good time, but I am," Leiter said.
Although he is soft-spoken, Leiter's success in archery is resounding. After winning seven National Field Archery Association titles in the 1980s and 1990s, Leiter is back in archery competition in the senior division. He won the senior national championship last year and has his sights set on a second one when he travels to South Dakota to compete from July 30 through Aug. 3.
Field archery competition consists of 28 targets set up on a course divided into two units of 14 — similar to each set of nine holes on a golf course. The location of the targets and the length differ on each target and course. Points are awarded depending upon where each archer's arrow lands on a painted target.
Although Leiter is finding success in the senior division now, it had been a long time since he had performed at a high level in professional archery. Despite being one of the top archers in the country in the 1990s — even finishing third in the World Archery Field Championships in 1994 — Leiter took time off from the sport after his seventh national title in 1995.
He had been a stay-at-home dad into his 30s, competing in archery full time. But as his twin sons and daughter grew older and began competing in sports, he put down his bow and coached them.
For several years, Leiter would pick up his bow only two or three times a year to shoot. As his children grew older and graduated from high school, he'd practice more but would rarely enter tournaments.
During that time, Leiter began competing in an over-40 baseball league. One of his teammates recognized him from archery fame.
"He told me, 'What are you doing out here? You're wasting your time. You should be with your bow,'" Leiter said. "Then, that's when I realized how much I missed it."
In 2008, when he had put all three of his children through college, Leiter began to return to competitive archery. By that time, he had already picked up a full-time job as a network engineer, and it had been 12 years since he had competed in a national tournament.
This season, Leiter, 52, has competed in all five of the NFAA tournaments, traveling across the country, including to Wyoming and Georgia.
A mental game
In preparing to return to competition, Leiter said, the mental aspect of archery was the toughest aspect.
"When I came back, I could still shoot the same scores, but the young guys were shooting better than that, so it was an adjustment," he said. "You have to raise your game.
"I probably practice more now than back when I was in my prime. It wasn't the physical part of practicing, it was the mental game."
Mastering the mental side of archery shows through in Leiter's practice. When at home shooting at a homemade target made of carpet mats, Leiter draws a golf ball out of a bag, each with a different distance written on it. Because of the varying targets in field archery, he can't practice at one distance.
A line of bricks in his yard represent the various distances, and he shoots four arrows from each distance before checking the results. Even in practice, Leiter will not release an arrow if he's not confident, sometimes taking only two seconds to line up a shot, and up to seven for others. During these sessions, Leiter hones his aim by shooting at targets smaller than the ones he faces in competition.
If he is distracted or begins to overthink a shot, he'll restart the process and line up again.
Although he's been repeating this routine for 42 years — Leiter began competing in tournaments when he was 9 years old because his parents were archers — he said it's his competitive attitude that keeps him coming back.
"The biggest thing is the challenge of improving. I'm still trying to improve," said Leiter, who has placed in the top 10 in each of the senior national tournaments he's competed in this year. "It's the pursuit of perfection, and hopefully I'll never lose that," he said.
Great eye, great guy
Even with his ultracompetitive personality, Sue Weinstein, a Crofton resident and fellow archer, said Leiter is willing to give his colleagues advice in practice. Weinstein went pro as an archer in the 1980s and began to travel to many of the same tournaments as Leiter, competing in the women's division.
"He was a good person to emulate, and would answer any questions I had," she said. "Some people are very helpful and some are not. You'll find some pros who don't even want to socialize."
Frank Pearson, a former competitor of Leiter's and now an archery coach based in Arizona, said it's Leiter's willingness to help that sets him apart.
"He's not just a good archer, he's a great guy. Most other sports, when guys are good, they won't help you because they're afraid they'll lose," Pearson said. "But with Mike, he tries to help anyone and everyone."
Now that Leiter's back in competition, Pearson said, "he's the guy to beat."