US archery competition highlights the sport’s growing reach

(Mark Wilson for the Boston Globe)
By Karen Sackowitz
Globe Correspondent / February 25, 2010

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Camden O’Neill got his first taste of archery at summer camp when he was 6 years old. He fell instantly in love with the sport, but his parents were less enamored.

“They didn’t think sharp objects were a good idea for me,’’ the Andover High School freshman recalls.

But he persisted, finally persuading them just 15 months ago to let him pursue the sport. They bought his starter equipment, and he has been training and competing ever since.

“When I joined my first team, I immediately felt like I was part of a family,’’ he says. “We all had this one odd thing in common, which was archery.’’

Since then, O’Neill’s equipment, and his shooting schedule have ramped up considerably.

“I go to competitions every other weekend, mostly in Massachusetts but in other parts of New England too,’’ he says. “I practice on my own every week, with my team every other week, and I shoot in a Friday night indoor league.’’

In addition to the practice time O’Neill puts into his sport, he also logs considerable mileage; his base is the Lunenburg Sportsmen’s Club, nearly 40 miles from his home in Andover. Given that at 15 he’s not old enough to drive, he is typically accompanied by his father, Jim, whom O’Neill jokingly refers to as his “bow caddy.’’

O’Neill says what he enjoys most about archery is the sense of relaxation it gives him.

“When I start shooting, there’s nothing else to think about,’’ he says. “It doesn’t matter what’s happening at home, at school, with my friends, nothing.’’

This weekend, O’Neill will be competing in one of the biggest archery competitions of the year, the 41st annual US National Indoor Championship, being held in the Andover High School field house tomorrow through Sunday.

More than 450 archers are expected to participate in the regional event, outnumbering last year’s record-setting attendance figure.

“Archery is gaining popularity,’’ says Richard Hart, the tournament’s director. “It’s a sport people can do from young to old, and is a great family sport. We have lots of parents and kids who compete together.’’

Hart adds that the openness of archery’s competitive format allows for interesting match-ups; weekend competitors can conceivably shoot side-by-side with an Olympic champion.

“It’s just luck of the draw where you are placed,’’ he says. “You could easily end up next to Butch Johnson,’’ a five-time Olympian.

Andover High’s field house this weekend will also be hosting a Junior Olympic Archery Development competition, administered by USA Archery, the sport’s national governing body, for the US Olympic Committee. Despite its outreach to world championship competition, the group’s foundation lies in promoting beginner instruction by trained, certified teachers, making the sport accessible to any child who is interested.

“JOAD is a grass-roots organization that gets kids involved on a local level and compiles the talent pool,’’ says Anthony Bartkowski, whose company, 776 Original Marketing, represents USA Archery.

“Reports back from JOAD clubs, mentors, and teachers indicate that there has been increase in youth participation,’’ he said.

John Leone has noticed that increase locally. The director of archery for the Andover Sportsmen’s Club says he is seeing more youths coming to shooting events.

“We emphasize it as a family sport, something fun to do for recreation,’’ he says, adding that the club’s popular introductory youth program held each March is geared toward ages 10 to 15.

One international archery champion who knows the impact his sport can have on children is Sean Callanan, a department head and teacher at the Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational High School in Wakefield, as well as last year’s world champion in the traditional archery category for the International Bowhunter Organization.

Callanan has been a vocal advocate for the National Archery in the Schools Program, an organization that has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception in 2002, and which will launch its first Massachusetts pilot program at his school in September.

“By 2005, the goal for NASP was to have between fifty and three hundred schools participating,’’ he says. “As of today, we’ve reached over a million kids in more than 5,000 schools in North America.’’

NASP is launched at the state level in conjunction with education and fish and game agencies. When partnering with a school, NASP organizers provide training for physical-education teachers to offer archery during gym class. Callanan says the sport offers a nonexclusive option for students.

“It allows for kids of all shapes, sizes, and abilities - even kids in wheelchairs can participate,’’ he says.

“Its greatest achievement is in motivating kids to increase their self-control, discipline, and confidence.’’

In addition to shooting instruction, the NASP curriculum also incorporates academic elements of the sport. One class may include discussion of archery’s 50,000-year history; another may focus on physics concepts, such as the power of stored energy.

Callanan, who lives in Middleton, says he is thrilled to bring to Massachusetts a program that has shown such success in many other states.

“In instructor surveys, over 70 percent report increases in student concentration and focus levels,’’ he says. “And 77 percent of participants will continue to shoot beyond high school; it’s really a gateway sport.’’

Camden O’Neill is already thinking down that road. After he graduates from Andover High in 2013, he says, he may head to the University of Connecticut, which has an excellent archery team. For now, though, he’s focused on the indoor nationals and trying to calm some jitters.

“It will be a challenge, and I’m a bit nervous,’’ he says. “But I know when I get there, I’ll be with all of my friends, and once I start shooting, nothing else will affect me.’’