LINN, Mo - Jill Szumigala had never thought of herself as Robin Hood until she competed in Missouri's National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP) tournament March 7. Keli Smart apparently saw herself as a Superwoman, but it took NASP to make her realize that her superpowers might land her a college scholarship.
The two were among more than 5,000 shooters across the Show-Me State who are discovering that bows and arrows can change your self-image. In some cases, they also changes how others think about them.
Szumigala, a junior at Helias High School in Jefferson City, got into archery when her school made it part of its life-sports program in physical education. Her father and younger brother are avid bowhunters, and Jill had done a little backyard shooting with them, but that was with equipment fitted to their size and strength. NASP uses one bow - the Mathews Genesis - that is adjustable for any shooter in grades four through 12.
Outfitted with a bow that fit her, Jill was excited about competing in the tournament at Linn State Technical College. When her turn came to shoot, she landed her first practice arrow in the center of the target. Her second shot hit the first arrow so squarely it peeled back the hollow aluminum shaft like the petals of a flower.
"I just thought it was an accident, and I felt really bad. I was like, ‘Coach, I broke an arrow. Do I have to pay for it?'"
Her worry turned to surprise when Coach Chip Malmstrom practically jumped up and down with excitement.
"He started freaking out and acting like it was a good thing," remembers Szumigala. I didn't know what was going on. Then I realized it was like Robin Hood."
Because it was a warm-up shot, her "Robin Hood" arrow didn't count. She still managed to place fourth in the girls high-school division, however.
"I didn't think I was going to place that well, but I did my best, I guess, and I hope I can do better in nationals." Whatever she does at the national NASP tournament in Louisville, Ky., May 8 and 9, Szumigala already has been changed by archery. She said archery is different than soccer and the other sports she plays.
"It takes a lot of hand-eye coordination and focus," she said. "It's unique. I think most people think of it as more of a recreational thing than as a sport you can compete in. When we did archery in lifetime sports I beat Coach Malmstrom, and I figured I should come out for the team.
"My brother is in seventh grade, and we're really competitive. He and my dad go hunting everywhere and now that I'm showing that I have skills they're saying, ‘Oh, I guess we should take you along!'"
Asked whether she expects to continue archery after high school, she said, "Maybe. I think you can get scholarships and stuff, so if it's something that can help me out in the long run, I don't know why I would stop."
Smart, a senior at South Callaway High School, wore a Superwoman tee shirt to the tournament. A serious athlete who pursues karate, power lifting and the discus throw, she traces her interest in archery to the tender age of four.
"When I was really little," she said, "we used to put strings on the sides of a stick and wait until they curved and make them into bows. I always felt that a bow felt right in my hand."
Later, when she began studying Shorin-Ryu-style karate, the bow became one of her favorite weapons. She is careful to note that she doesn't like hunting, but she loves the Zen-like focus of target shooting which shuts out everything else.
Smart's coach, Mary Branum, took several of her archers from South Callaway High School to Jefferson City last year to meet with the Missouri Sportsman's Caucus in the legislature. They set up a regulation NASP range and gave representatives and senators a hands-on introduction to the International Style Target Archery training that NASP brings to grades 4 through 12. The lawmakers were so impressed they voted unanimously to buy a full set of archery equipment - bows, arrows, targets and backstop curtain and bow hangers - for the school.
Steve Lanier, who coaches the Longview Farm Elementary School NASP team in Lee's Summit, handled registration for the state NASP tournament. He said he knew the program had struck a chord when he received more than 200 registrations in the first week. His own passion for target archery dates back 20 years, to a time when he was trying to improve his hunting skills.
"A friend said it would make me a better hunter, and I just fell in love with it," said Lanier.
He calls archery "the perfect sport for kids," because anyone can succeed. Archery does not require above-average strength or stamina. It teaches discipline, responsibility, confidence, self esteem and the concentration skills needed to succeed in other activities, including academics. The steady improvement that comes with practice builds self-esteem.
Some of Lanier's students have discovered that archery is more fun than video games. That thrills the coach, who knows the physical, social activity that archery provides is better for them than solitary, sedentary games. He has students whose academic performance is poor but who are excited about coming to school every day because of NASP.
"Parents will e-mail me and say their son or daughter is sick, but they want to come to school so they won't miss archery."
Lanier says archery also is a great way to get parents of elementary-age children involved in school activities. "It's not just fluff," said Lanier. "This is something where they can really connect with their sons or daughters."
Bringing archery into his physical education curriculum was a long-time dream for Lanier. NASP made that dream doable.
In spite of only having received its equipment last November, Helias High School brought two teams to the tournament and won first and third places. Second place in the High School Division went to Hurley High School, Hurley.
Winners in the Middle School Division were Crane Middle School, Crane, first; Maries County R-2, Bland, second; and Dent-Phelps Middle School, Salem, third.
Winners in the Elementary School Division were: George Guffey Elementary, Fenton, first; Perry Christian Academy, Perry, second; and Longview Farm Elementary, Lee's Summit, third.
Top individual scorers were: Joseph Schatz, Boys' Elementary Division, Raymore, 270; Preston McHalland, Crane, Boy's Middle School Division, 269; Brent Wildhaber, Jefferson City, Boys High School Division, 267; Marissa Quick, Salem, Girl's Middle School Division 263; Keli Smart, Mokane, Girl's High School Division, 251; Chelsea Eversmeyer, Perry, Girl's Elementary Division, 241.
The top boy and girl scorers - Schatz and Quick - received chrome-finished Mathews Genesis bows donated by Brennan Industries.
Although NASP is barely two years old in Missouri, it already has spread to 64 schools. Participating school districts are working to spread the program to neighboring districts so they can have tournaments close to home. Four or five Missouri schools are qualified and plan to compete in the national NASP tournament, where 4,000 shooters are expected.
Missouri NASP is a cooperative effort of the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Conservation Federation of Missouri. The Missouri Bowhunters Association helped with the state tournament. The Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation donated $5,000 help the top team in each of the three divisions buy equipment or to attend the national tournament.