At only 16, Columbia's Matthew Bitner-Parish is a shooting star

At the sound of two whistles, Matthew Bitner-Parish sets up at the shooting line. After another whistle, he draws his bow and stands still, eyes focused on the target 70 meters away.

On a crisp fall day, Bitner-Parish trains during one of his biweekly practices on a field outside Ridgely Middle School in Lutherville-Timonium. A soccer practice is underway on an adjacent field, and neighborhood residents stroll past on a sidewalk up the hill. When he finally shoots, the string snaps back with a thud as the arrow takes off. It's another bull's-eye.

The 16-year-old from Columbia is used to being on target. At the Texas Shootout on Sept. 26-28 at Texas A&M;, he finished fifth overall in the recurve male cadet category. In July, he finished fifth in the national championships, earning a spot on the USA Archery Junior Dream Team, a pool of 20 promising 12- to 18-year-old archers who will have the chance to be one of three to represent the country in next year's Outdoor World Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark. Members attend three or four training camps a year at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.; Bitner-Parish's first is Nov. 11-15.

A commitment to his craft has led Bitner-Parish to such heights. In Texas, the Wilde Lake junior would get up at 5 a.m. to practice. Every day of the Texas Shootout, competitors would let fly 72 arrows in all, aiming for a bull's-eye about as big as a doughnut.

"It feels very long, especially when you're trying to do well," Bitner-Parish says of the competition. "Because you get a really good end, and you want to keep that up, so you're focusing really hard [on] every single shot, trying to make every single shot really good. That is very mentally taxing, very stressful."

Bitner-Parish's mother, Michelle Parish, says learning to concentrate intensely has benefited her son beyond archery.

"He has to commit to being [not just] an archer, but to being an archer every single shot," Parish says. "So that helps him with his focus, his concentration, his coordination, his self-reliance. There's a whole lot of really positive things that come out of this."

Bitner-Parish's Junior Olympic Archery Development Program coach, Ted Light, 57, says archery is 95 percent mental, so he teaches Bitner-Parish to picture himself accomplishing his goals and to believe in himself.

"Primarily, though, he has to work on what's called your self-image. Now that's just a confidence level," Light, of Cockeysville, says. "If you think you can, you can; if you think you can't, you won't."

Bitner-Parish kept those teachings in mind in Texas.

"I think, definitely, my concentration has gotten better because of this," Bitner-Parish says. "At Texas ... I felt like I was really good mentally, like I was not really losing it, like every shot was the first shot; every shot was really strong, and [I] focused on putting it in the center."

Bitner-Parish learned to shoot guns and arrows with the 4-H Bullseyes Club at the Howard County Fairgrounds when he was 11, and soon fell in love with archery. As he went to more matches, he started to see it as a possible career option, unlike his other hobbies of soccer, cycling and skateboarding.

"I have fun with those, but it's not necessarily something that I could turn into a profession," Bitner-Parish says. "But with archery, I could have a pretty solid run and make it to the Olympics."

The next step toward that goal will be in California, where he'll work with some of the best coaches in the nation.

The training will supplement an already busy training schedule. Bitner-Parish practices about five days a week, two of which Light leads with archers 9 to 18 years old at the Ridgely Middle School gymnasium or on a field. Bitner-Parish also practices at home and at indoor fields in White Marsh.

Indoor ranges are only about 18 meters long, and sometimes he's restricted to even closer quarters.

"I was pretty much in a hallway in my laundry room" during the winter, Bitner-Parish says. "I mean, I was jammed in there, and I was just trying to get arrows to shoot whatever I could, so I could keep my muscles and my strength up."

Bitner-Parish says it's not always easy to notice the benefits of practicing often, but if he doesn't stay consistent, he can feel himself losing his form.

"At the end of the summer, I took maybe a week off where I just didn't shoot because I was just doing other things and just didn't pick up the bow, and the week after that, when I came out to practice out here, it was very tough," he says. "You really have to keep [your muscles] toned because when you're shooting 40 to 50 pounds [in] bow weight, your muscles really have to stay in check, because when you don't shoot for even a week … you don't want to be flinching and shaking, and it shouldn't take a lot of effort to shoot your bow."

When he's not honing his skills, Bitner-Parish helps train younger 4-H members. That's where his passion for archery started, and he says he enjoys passing it on.

"It's good to see Matthew giving back like that … because I can stand there on the line and I can talk about form and stuff, but he's their peer," Parish says. "He's something they can look up to."

mlaliberte@baltsun.com

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