Kids turning attention to archery in record numbers
There aren't very many people who can shoot a bow like Justin Bradley.
That likely won't ever change. He's a star.
But there's also no denying the number of people taking up his sport is increasing exponentially.
A sophomore at Cal (Pa.) from Burgettstown, Bradley is a reigning 2013 U.S. Collegiate Archery Association national champion. He beat out archers from universities across the country — Texas, Texas A&M, Penn State, James Madison, Utah and Purdue, among others — to take the top spot in the compound bow category last year.
And perhaps this year, too.
Bradley finished in first place in the association's recent East Regional, 23 points ahead of his nearest competitor.
Archers in a couple of other regions have yet to shoot, and their scores will be compared to his. But it won't be a surprise if his score earns him another title, said his coach, Sam Steingrabe of Carroll Township.
“People who have the ability to shoot like that, they are of a different kind of mind,” Steingrabe said. “They're not risk takers. They're meticulous. They shoot the same way, every time, to get it right.”
That's the key, Bradley said. Competing is a grind. On the collegiate level, archers shoot for as long as four hours at a time.
Some can't sustain their focus that long, he said.
“About half through, you'll often start to see people crash,” Bradley said. “They start to wander mentally, thinking about sports or school or something.”
He's able to succeed because he practices a lot, two to three hours a day, five to six days a week, he said.
A growing number of younger archers are trying to follow in those footsteps.
Participation in competition archery has skyrocketed in recent years, particularly on the scholastic level, thanks in part to Hollywood.
USA Archery, the national governing body for the U.S. Olympic team, began tracking archer numbers in November 2011, four months before the release of the first “Hunger Games” movie. It had 4,185 individual members. In November of 2013, it had 8,589, an increase of 105 percent.
Participation in the National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP) has grown, too. It launched in Kentucky in 2002 with two goals: to get high school and middle-school kids involved in the shooting sports and improve their academic performance, said president and founder Ray Grimes, a retired Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife director.
It's succeeded to the tune of 2.5 million participating students in 47 states and 10 countries. They key is that it gets physical education teachers to incorporate archery into their classes, where it reaches all students, Grimes said.
“If we're trying to grow the shooting sports, we don't need to reach my kids or your kids,” Grimes said. “You have to reach kids who might have an interest but no way of filling it.”
Participating students can compete in state, national and world NASP tournaments. A record 1,100-plus will gather in State College on March 14 for the NASP Pennsylvania state championship tournament, for example. That's up from 817 last year.
“When you get this in one school in a county, surrounding schools find out. Then they all want to get involved,” said Samantha Pedder, hunting outreach coordinator for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, who plans the event.
Beaver High/Middle School will be there. It's entering its fourth year in the program, and has competed in state, national and world competition, with a goal of doing it again this year, coach Lucy Flynn said.
The students on the team represent “a mixed bag,” she said.
“We have a couple of bowhunters. But for the most part, it's kids who tried archery in class and decided they really liked it and wanted to take it further. We've got some band kids, some computer geeks, some athletes, some kids who do the musical,” she said.
The trait they share, like Bradley, is a passion for the sport, she said.
“When you can get a high school kid to come to the building at 6:30 in the morning to practice for an hour before classes, I think that's pretty good,” Flynn said.
The new youth archery program at Charleroi Archery Club, which Steingrabe helps teach, signed up 30 kids in its first weekend, while the bow shop he works for seasonally has been catering to the younger set — including lots of girls — for a while.
“I think at one point we sold something like 16 pink bows in four days,” he said. “That tells you the interest right now.”