That’s the easiest way I can explain away how I would have the chutzpah — my Cuban brethren have another word for it, also starting with the letter “C” — to attempt what I did.
Sure, it seemed like a good idea at the time: Give some exposure to those summer Olympic sports that we never see on television but which nevertheless fill out the United States’ medal count. And what better way to do that than to try them myself, guided by a professional in the sport.
Plus, my boss wanted to humiliate me in pictures. There’s that.
Hopefully, the big winners in all this are the sports I tried: archery, fencing, javelin, synchronized swimming and table tennis. Most of them could use the exposure. In the last two Olympics, Americans have won 10 total medals in those sports (eight in fencing).
The problem started when I let my ego creep up. I mean, I was a high school athlete — volleyball and baseball count, right? — and I had been a professional sportswriter since I was 19. I even tried to think of a cute name for my Plimptonian effort: My Pentathlon of Ignorance. Or Carlos’ Olympic Trials (and Tribulations). And a bunch of others too horrible to admit to in public.
So I guess I deserve the outcome — down to the photos of me in that bathing suit. (It’s coming up soon. My apologies to everyone with eyes.)
I know I must have looked ridiculous — at best, naïve — to these coaches, each of whom spent the better of two hours with me, showing me the fundamentals. But they couldn’t have been more gracious and eager to talk about their sport.
I did learn how to handle a sword and shoot an arrow. If nothing else, I’m going to clean up at the local Renaissance Festival.
Today’s sport: Archery
I pull back on the bow loaded with a carbon-fiber arrow, and archery coach John Bowersox gives me one last piece of advice as I line up the target:
“I want you to imagine the fate of the world rests on this shot,” he says. “How’s that for pressure?”
This is a little game he plays with the scores of children who have signed up for archery lessons at Palm Beach Archery since the movies Brave and The Hunger Games made little girls into arrow-slinging heroes. It’s how he ends his lessons.
And after just two hours, he rests the weight of the world in my not-so-steady hands.
But believe it or not, I’m ready for this, thanks to Bowersox, 33, who trains junior Olympians in his west Boca Raton archery range and whose own goal is to make the U.S. archery team and travel the world in competitions.
My goal is not to kill someone.
Bowersox set me up on a smaller version of the bow Olympians use in competition. The Olympic recurve bow lets you feel the tension of holding the shot steady. In my case, it was a bow that made it feel like you’re holding back 20 pounds of pressure. Olympians, he said, use up to a 60-pound bow, and I let it go because I figure he’s talking about Greek gods.
Anyway, the sport is as much about feel as it is about accuracy. Sure, there is a sight on the bow that makes it easier to line up the center of the shot. But Bowersox started me, as all his students, on a bow without a sight. He wanted me to line up the target of concentric blue, red, and yellow circles and fire on instinct alone. Predictably, the photographer stood way, way behind me.
My first “end” — that is, a round of three arrows — ended up on the top right of the target. Although it felt like I was aiming at the bull’s-eye, I had to train my mind to recognize that as high and right, he said. I tried again. This time, my next three shots were to the top and left. I rearranged my instincts again, and this time the arrows grouped just to the right of the target. In less than half an hour, I was on the board.
This in mind, I ask Bowersox just how preposterous it is for an archer to split one arrow with another dead-center shot, a la Robin Hood.
“I did it twice last week,” he said, and retrieved the stacked arrows to prove it.
The precision of the sport makes it a pretty common occurrence, he said, which is why the back of the arrows are made of plastic, so they can be replaced. As soon as he adds a sight onto my bow, one that isn’t even calibrated to my specifications, I begin to understand why. My next three shots are within inches of the bull’s-eye, all grouped within 8 inches of each other. I start to channel my inner Katniss. (Wait, she’s a girl. I mean the guy from The Avengers. He’s tough, right? Ok, that’s who I’m channeling.)
Then again, I was only shooting from nine meters. The competition distance is 18 meters. Olympians? They’ll shoot at a larger target from 70 meters — more than three-quarters of a football field.
But here, on the bunny slope, I get to imagine myself an Olympian. (OK, forget The Avengers guy, now I’m channeling Daryl Dixon from AMC’s The Walking Dead, hunting zombies.) Bowersox works on my posture, tells me to forget trying to aim so much and just let the bow’s string slip out of my hand on instinct.
The arrows fly out with a thwap that is immediately followed by a thud on the target. Thwap! Thud! Repeat. Archery is as much about repetition as it is meditation. When I finally put it all together, I almost don’t feel as the string slips out from between my fingers, the arrow flies true and pierces the inside ring of the target. Bull’s-eye.
“There’s something wholly gratifying about watching the arrow sail out and land in the middle of the target,” he said. “The look in a kid’s eye when he hits that first bull’s-eye, there’s nothing like it.”
I feel like that kid.
Three other times in the remaining half hour, my arrows fly true and land in the yellow concentric circles — but nowhere near the tiny “X” in the dead center of the target, which is what is used as a tie-breaker when competitive archers unfailingly shoot a tie of perfect scores.
As our time winds down, Bowersox hands me my last arrow.