- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 22, 2004

When Frank Kelley and a dozen other members of the Fairfax Target Archers shoot at a set of targets on the club field in Centreville., the pleasant thwang of bow strings being released fills the air, and scores of arrows rise and fall toward their red, blue and yellow targets, quickly followed by the relaxing thump of arrows striking targets.

It is a bright September Sunday, and the Fairfax Target Archers are conducting a tournament called the Club 600. The pace of the club competition is leisurely and relaxed, allowing time and space for socializing and fun, as well as for serious shooting that will last about three hours.

“It’s a club shoot,” says Mr. Kelley, president of the club, who has been shooting for 2-1/2 years. “So we just want everybody to have fun and pick distances where they can consistently hit.”

Standing at a line in trimmed, green grass in a football-sized field surrounded by woods, the men, women and teenagers shoot their arrows at targets ranging from 20 to 60 meters, or from about 66 to 200 feet away, then stroll down to retrieve arrows, take score and start the process over again. The shooters range in ability from recreational archers to individuals striving to make the next Olympics.

This scene at the Fairfax Target Archers is a common sight throughout the Washington area as men, women and youngsters take part in archery competitions in nearly a dozen local clubs throughout the year, outdoors if the weather is clear and indoors if it is not.

Some archers simply want to pursue a sport that offers a measure of physical activity and skill, as well as opportunities for socializing and fun.

Other club members follow the sport more seriously and compete in regional, state and national events where the competition is stiffer. Still other archers want to hone their skills for hunting.

• • •

The sport of archery takes three forms. Olympic-style archery has shooters aiming at colorful targets from 20 to 90 meters (from about 22 to 99 yards) away with bows that bear little resemblance to those seen in films from “Robin Hood” to “Lord of the Rings.”

The long bow is what the average person thinks of when his or her thoughts turn to archery, but in Olympic-style archery, most shooters use a recurved bow that bends away from the archer on both ends, which allows the string to have greater contact with the bow.

A recurved bow also contains devices like a stabilizer, a bar that sticks out from the bow’s limb up to 2 feet and provides steadiness and balance and cuts down on vibration. In Olympic archery, the shooter is restricted to certain equipment so that shooting is about the skill of the archer and not about having equipment that makes shooting easier.

In 3-D archery, which has evolved from hunting, shooters roam through a course and take aim at 20 3-D targets that are shaped like animals. As in Olympic archery, archers score points by hitting a bull’s-eye or coming close to one.

In field archery, shooters also proceed through a target area and shoot at 28 varied targets.

In both 3-D and field archery, archers mostly shoot with a compound bow, which has various mechanical aids that make shooting easier, including wheels or cams at either end of the bow, which takes the draw weight or pressure off the shooter when the bow is fully flexed.

For example, if a bow has a 60-pound draw — the equivalent of holding a 60-pound weight — and has wheels or cams, the pressure on the archer when the bow is fully drawn may be only 12 or 15 pounds, which makes it easier for the shooter to take aim and shoot consistently.

In addition, many shooters with compound bows take aim with mechanical releases instead of shooting bare-fingered, or they employ scopes or peep sites. In both 3-D and field archery, shooting ties in closely with hunting, which many shooters pursue. Thus, the equipment is designed to help the shooter have an easier shot at game or at a target while in the woods.

• • •

Archery may look simple: A shooter notches up an arrow and simply lets go at a target — but there is much more to the sport than that in terms of shooting with control, consistency and accuracy.

“It’s a deceptively difficult sport,” says Ruth Rowe, an Olympic archer in 1984, as well as an international competitor, and a member of Fairfax Target Archers who also runs an Olympic-style program of her own out of Bull Run Shooting Center, Centreville, where she gives lessons.

“It looks like you pull the string back and shoot,” she says. “Well, not quite. It’s hard because if you think of a sport like fencing, you can teach how to manage the weapon, how to move the footwork up and down the strip, or how to do a countermove. And the athlete can go and practice each one of those, independent of the other.

“The basic unit in archery, however, is the whole shot. Therefore, it’s a very steep learning curve at the beginning. If you’re going to learn to do it right, it’s a lot of focused attention at the beginning at least to learn how to do it. It’s a very specific body position. It’s not necessarily natural.”

Mr. Kelley, a 56-year-old Annandale resident who took up archery for competition, shot bows as a youth but lost touch with the sport and started taking lessons from Ms. Rowe after retiring recently from United Airlines, where he was a reservation agent.

“I’m trying to develop my skills so I can compete in archery,” says Mr. Kelley, a full-time fencing instructor. “It’s kind of hard to teach and compete in the same sport, so I’m teaching fencing, but I’m competing in archery.”

Mr. Kelley enjoys archery because it’s one-on-one. “It’s very quiet,” he says. “It’s very addicting. There’s a fairly high technical aspect to it and yet it also takes a lot of focus and concentration and that focus and concentration causes me to be more relaxed.”

Mr. Kelley says that the irony of his teaching fencing and shooting archery is that in fencing you have to get wound up for the sport and in archery you have to get wound down to shoot. After a few months of shooting archery, Mr. Kelley won a master’s over-50 outdoors championship for Virginia in 2002. He has won it two out of three years.

“The lessons have been very good for me,” he says. “Ruth is a phenomenal teacher.”

• • •

Gerald Taylor, also a member of Fairfax Target Archers, competes at the top level in the sport. He has been the state champion both indoors and outdoors for most of past 15 years in Virginia. In addition, Mr. Taylor was sixth in the U.S. Open, an international ranking event, and 14th in the national championship.

“I’m in that group who are chasing the top archers,” he says.

Mr. Taylor says that one element that many people have difficulty with in learning archery is patience.

“Because of our society and our fast pace of life, a lot of people expect instant results,” says Mr. Taylor, a 42-year-old software engineer who was an All-American in archery in college.

“Archery is a skill that takes a fair bit of training and a fair bit of work to perfect if you want to get to a high level. If you just want to shoot to have fun, well, that’s easy to do. More archers shoot for fun than for competition. But if you really want to master it, it takes a bit of time, a lot of training, dedication and just patience.”

Last spring, Judy Kelsen joined the Fairfax Target Archers after taking her daughter Hillary to archery practice to the club for several years. When Hillary, a freshman at Thomas Jefferson High School, bought a new bow, Mrs. Kelsen thought it was a perfect opportunity to try archery with her daughter’s old bow.

Mrs. Kelsen said that archery can be demanding. “It’s harder than it looks pulling back that bow,” she says. “And it’s probably because I’m doing it wrong. But my daughter’s giving me pointers. I haven’t found the time to practice as much as I should. You really need to practice the sport to get in the yellow [the bull’s-eye] consistently.”

However, at the club’s recent tournament, Mrs. Kelsen, who took lessons from Ms. Rowe, hit the target 53 out of 60 times.

“It’s a recreational thing right now,” said Mrs. Kelsen, who also likes the sport because it allows her to bond with her daughter. “It’s nice being there with her. It gives us something fresh to talk about and something fresh to have in common.”

A little less than three years ago, Susan Cunningham also joined the Fairfax Target Archers. As a child, she had been a huge Robin Hood fan, and her parents had bought her a small bow. Through the years, Ms. Cunningham drifted away from archery, but decided after graduating from college that it might be fun to try the sport again.

She took lessons from Ms. Rowe, picked up the basics quickly, and soon was competing in both state and national tournaments, winning a second place one year and a third the next in her state division. Ms. Cunningham says she likes archery because it’s an individual sport and not a team sport.

“It’s all you,” she says. “You don’t have to rely on anybody else’s performance, but yet, at the same time, there’s a good community. Everybody’s really friendly and really helpful and really nice. Like today after the shoot, we stuck around and we cooked out and all sat around and talked about the Redskins game. So it’s a really good community even though it’s an individual sport.”

• • •

At Southern Maryland Archers in Prince George’s County, Mike Cassidy, president of the club, has been shooting 3-D and field archery for six years. Mr. Cassidy, like other club members, can shoot all year in the club’s indoor range to keep his skills sharp.

In the club’s field archery course, there are 14 targets that range from five to 80 yards. A complete round is 28 targets and has a possible score of 560 points and can take four to eight hours to complete, depending on how many shooters are on hand.

In the club’s 3-D course, which takes about three hours to complete, 20 targets are set up in the form of everything from deer to antelope to buffalo, leopard, elk and alligator. The targets range from a distance of 4 yards to 60 and are set up with scoring rings.

“What makes 3-D so fun for myself is that you have to be able to judge the yardage and still make a very good shot on the animal,” Mr. Cassidy says. “The meaning behind most of the 3-D range is to make hunting more enjoyable. [Shooting at the range] has made me a much better shot than the average bow hunter, who shoots accurately at 20 to 25 yards. I can hit a target at 45 yards.”

Mr. Cassidy says that archery can be physically demanding. “It’s physically demanding in some aspects, but it’s more of a mental game,” he says. “It’s all about, you have to practice. Your body eventually learns that, when you practice enough, it becomes second nature for it. And that’s what you’re looking for to become an archer. You want it to be second nature, so you won’t have to think about it. That’s what separates a novice archer from someone who’s been doing it for a while.”

In 1995, Richard Walker joined Southern Maryland Archers. His wife had bought him a bow for Christmas three years before but he didn’t become serious about the sport until he joined the club. “I don’t know why I was compelled to shoot a bow and arrow, but I just got into it,” he says.

Once Mr. Walker started shooting at the club, he developed his skills by practicing often and by reading and studying about the sport. He also picked up pointers from club members, and the club invited archery pros to give its members seminars about the sport.

“It wasn’t until I joined the club that I came in contact with folks who were experts at how to shoot safely and the right way and that emphasized the ethical aspect of taking an animal with a bow and arrow as opposed to just flinging arrows,” Mr. Walker says. “There’s definitely a right way to do it.”

Mr. Walker, a 40-year-old computer software consultant, has competed at state championships in 3-D archery. He has also competed at regional tournaments in Atlantic City for three years in a row.

Moreover, he says he enjoys the camaraderie of the sport, of hanging out with a group of archers that shoot on the same level as he does.

“Archery is something that you can pick up fairly quickly and get decent at to the point that you’re hooked,” Mr. Walker says. “And you can be competitive and go out and shoot 3-D and have fun with it. Either you’ll win one day or your buddy will win the next day. That’s kind of fun. The real aspect that you’re out there for is to hone your skills for bow hunting and get as good as you can.”

• • •

At Northern Virginia Archers, at Fountainhead Regional Park, archers in the club shoot both 3-D and field archery. They maintain a range approved by the National Field Archery Association and have two 14-target units with targets that range from 20 feet to 80 yards.

Jim Herin, president of the club, has been shooting for 11 years but doesn’t hunt. He just enjoys shooting targets. He says an essential aspect of the sport is matching an archer’s physique to his or her equipment.

“Draw length is the most important thing,” he says. “Everybody is different, just like everybody wears a different size shoe. If you have something that is too short for your physical size, then it’s not going to ever feel comfortable. And unless you can hold steady and aim steadily and be comfortable, you’re going to shake or something. And you’re going to involve muscles in a tense situation instead of a relaxed situation and that’s going to effect how well you aim. You’re going to probably jump at the shot just to try to get it off rather than settling in and relaxing and let the pin settle on the bull’s-eye and just slowly release.”

Archers from all of the clubs say that buying the wrong equipment is a common mistake of novices. When Mr. Herin originally started in the sport, he bought a compound bow in which the bow setup was wrong. He ended up with a bow that had a much shorter draw length than he needed for his build.

“It really helps to have somebody that is knowledgeable to get you started rather than doing it on your own,” says Mr. Herin, a 53-year-old electronics technician who lives in Woodbridge, Va.

“I could’ve gained a couple of years if I’d known. The bow was way too heavy for my physical strength and way too long to hold comfortably. And it wasn’t until I started shooting with other people that I learned that my draw length was much too long. Finally, I refined it down a little bit.”

Mr. Herin recommends archery lessons. He says novices will learn the fundamentals and proper form and the importance of a proper draw length.

“Once you get the basics down and get fitted with the proper equipment, you’ll be able to progress much better than I did,” he says. “It really helps to have someone who’s knowledgeable in just the basic form that can pick up a few flaws right off the top and let you know you’re not doing this right or need to work on that and can get you started on the proper path.

“Once that happens and you get your equipment matched properly, it’s just a matter of practice and just refining what you’ve learned.”

Archery clubs in the region

Archery clubs and train- ing are available across the Washington area. Here’s a guide to resources mentioned in the article.

• Fountainhead Regional Park, 10875 Hampton Road, Fairfax Station. 703/250-6687. Lessons $5 a session after mid-November. Equipment provided. www.NorthernVirginiaarchery.org. Contact Jim Herin, 703/490-3293.

• Southern Maryland Archers: Old Indian Head Road off Route 301, across from Cheltenham Woods near Andrews Air Force Base. Meets first Wednesday of each month. Contact archer@southernmdarchers.com or see www.southernmdarchers.com.

• Target Archery Training and Coaching: Lessons for adults and children, $40 a session. Equipment furnished. Contact Ruth Rowe, 571/215-4403 or archeryprogram @aol.com.

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