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With renewed interest from films, pint-sized archers shoot with precision at Wimberley school

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Moments after the arrows fly at St. Stephen's Episcopal School, it sounds like a flurry of egg-sized mudpies hitting a cement wall.

That chorus is repeating across the country, as pint-sized archers aim for the bull's-eye, inspired by movies featuring sharp-aiming young heroines like Katniss Everdeen of "The Hunger Games" and flame-haired Merida from the upcoming Disney feature "Brave."

Both would probably rather split a peanut atop someone's head than the apple William Tell shot, and here in the gym of this private elementary school in Wimberley you get the idea the feeling's mutual.

The students, under the watchful eye of archery coach Val Jeter, first pick up a bow in kindergarten. Those first few days, the safest place to stand is in front of the target, Jeter jokes. A few weeks later, though, they're landing arrows well within the colored rings on targets set up along one wall.

"We want to get a bow in their hand as soon as possible," Jeter says.

The school has offered archery for seven years. It teaches discipline, hand-eye coordination and self-esteem, Jeter says. It also offers an alternative for students who don't go out for more traditional sports like football, baseball or volleyball.

"You don't have to be a giant offensive linesman," says Trey Hamlett, outreach and recruitment manager at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "Smaller people have just as much ability as those who are ripped and fit. You can do it the first day you try. It's new and different — and doesn't involve electronics."

More than 2 million children in 47 states and seven countries tried archery this school year through the National Archery in the Schools Program, which started in Kentucky in 2002.

"It's becoming this great motivating activity," says Burnie Kessner, archery coordinator for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which administers the program at 662 Texas schools, including this one. "When they do archery, they get really excited about school, and anything that makes a kid jump out of bed and yell, ‘Take me to school' is a great activity."

At St. Stephen's, safety is critical. The students use compound bows with adjustable draw weights and aluminum arrows. They shoot at targets from distances of 10 and 15 meters. Whistle blasts alert them when they can shoot and when it's clear to retrieve their arrows.

"When one of the younger archers shoots a bull's-eye, you would think they won a gold medal at the Olympics," Jeter says.

Second-grader Marisol Peters, 8, recently nabbed first place in the kindergarten through third-grade division of a state tournament in Belton, beating out archers a year older. Instead of a trophy, she won a brand new compound bow, which she's using today.

"It's one of my favorite sports," she says. "I'm so used to doing it and have so much focus because I also do karate."

More than 40 percent of the archers at the tournament were female. Archery is one of only a handful of school sports in which boys and girls compete alongside each other.

Fourth-grader Garet Lipinski, 10, is headed to the national competition in Kentucky after winning his division at the state tournament. He's practicing twice a day and knows how to line up an arrow just right, so it flies straight.

"We rely on our own skill and it takes a lot of concentration. It's also fun," he says.

Garet's mother, Andrea Lipinski, says three generations of her family practice archery, and they're always trying to get other families hooked. She shoots, as does her husband and Garet's grandfather.

"It's addictive. When you get an arrow close or in the yellow you want to do it again," she says.

Third-grader Bela Weeks, 9, just learned to shoot this year and got her own bow and arrow set for Christmas. She took third at the state tournament.

"It's fun," she says. "I was surprised I did so well."

Everyone's got a secret, and first-grader Ava Newman, 6, is eager to share hers.

"My secret is to shoot high," she says. She first picked up a bow when she was 3. She's since hit multiple bull's-eyes. "I like it a lot."

St. Stephen's offers archery to all its kindergarten through fifth-graders. Starting this month, it will add an after-school Junior Olympic Archery Development club that's open to the public.

Contact Pam LeBlanc at pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994 Twitter: @fitcityleblanc

Take aim with archery