4/5/2018 9:57:48 AM
By Sherry Lucas
Jade Carlisle, 15, plants her feet, grounds her stance, and with steely focus and steady form, assumes the sort of perfect posture rarely associated with teens. She pulls back on the bowstring with confidence, aims and lets the arrow fly through the crisp morning air. It hits the target’s center with a satisfying thwack, and she grins big, dimples dancing.
Best friend Piper Britt, 14, takes her bow next and does the same, her enthusiastic nature on hold for a second to concentrate on the task. Fingers tipped in glittery polish tug the bowstring in a smooth-and-solid pull. She aims true and hits the target, too. A quick laugh and she gets right back to chatting up the sport.
The girls were part of the Simpson Central archery club that won the Archery in Mississippi Schools (AIMS) 2A public middle school state championship in 2017 and finished eighth in a national competition in Louisville, Ky., in May. They will be competing at this year’s event as freshmen at Mendenhall High.
“When we left, I just had that feeling we weren’t satisfied, we weren’t through with it,” archery coach Jeffrey Walker says. They signed up for the National Archery in Schools Program World Tournament in Orlando, Fla., in July; he took his top 18 archers, and they finished fifth.
“I had a standout team this year… about 12 girls that were just over the top,” Jade and Piper among them, says Walker, who also coaches with Brad Smith at Mendenhall High. Jade was the top scoring girl in archery at the State Games held in Meridian in June 2017. Piper was the No. 1 girl in the 2017 AIMS state championship. Also on the team was Kay Kay Walker (the coach’s daughter), who finished second in the middle school division and fifth overall in the state.
“That was just a really fun group of girls that I had, and boys, but those girls… competed against each other and I think that’s one reason we were so good. They took practice like competition every day. But they were all good friends.”
Jade started archery in sixth grade.
“It was kind of like an escape because it’s really peaceful,” she says, “and other sports are kind of chaotic.”
She has autism and finds refuge in the focus the sport demands. Three years in, she sees its ups and downs, “but I feel like I’ve come a long way,” scoring her personal best, 288, in-state competition. “That’s really good for me.”
But archery? That, she can do, going from a 250-260 score to an average from the high-280s to mid-290s, depending on the day, she says. Pop culture puts a fresh spin on the sport, from the animated “Brave” to the blockbuster “Hunger Games,” “Robin Hood” to “Rambo” to Bridgestone tire ads and more.
“It’s not exactly like it is in the movies,” Jade says, “but it’s kind of inspirational, to see how they have fun with it — especially girls because it’s usually a male sport. Just to see how they are so into it, it makes you want to be into it.”
She’s now a source of inspiration, too—for her sister, Jasmine, 10, and her younger brother, Kael, 7.
A Good Aim
Driving youth interest in the fast-growing sport is the AIMS program, sponsored by the Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks Foundation and covering archery in the state’s schools, including a collegiate division. AIMS launched in 2007 with 31 schools, says director Waldo Cleland. Within a decade, the number has increased to 463 active programs for 4th- through 12th-graders in Mississippi.
“It was very popular with the kids and the student-athletes, but it was not real popular with the school superintendents, principals, and coaches,” Cleland says. “Everybody was worried (gasp), ‘A weapon in school!’ They really didn’t understand what the program was.”
Now, more than 76,000 kids go through it each year in public, private, and parochial schools, and home-school groups, Cleland says, without a single accident or incident report. “I attribute that to our training program. … We’ve got the best training in the nation.
“Our safety is our No. 1 priority.
In the most recent survey, the participants are 55 percent girls and 45 percent boys. “After being in this now for 12 years, I’m still shocked to see how well female athletes are contributing to the sport,” Cleland says. “Not just contributing, but actually … building the sport.”
It is a pursuit that gets kids outdoors and that can lead to scholarships in college and lifelong enjoyment. Archery is becoming more spectator-friendly, too, with real-time score reporting and a more spirited atmosphere.
This year the AIMS South State Championship in Hattiesburg takes place March 19-22, while the North State Championship in Coffeeville is scheduled for the following week, March 26-29. The state championship is April 3-7 at the Mississippi Trade Mart in Jackson.
Archery makes you feel strong, Jade says, and she sees more girls gravitating its way.
But, she adds, “(Archery is) like that one best friend that always wants to hurt you. It’s so frustrating, but I love it so much!”
Jade says autism doesn’t have a big effect on how she shoots, but the amount of people around and bright light can affect her comfort level. “All the people? That’s why I shoot bad at bigger groups,” she says, “but at the smaller things … that’s why I shot really good because there were barely any people there.”
Piper says she gets fussed at for being too energetic. Jade says, “I get fussed at for being too focused. … When I get focused on one thing, I get focused on it a lot, and I forget everything else.”
Her mother, Krystal Carlisle, sees archery’s positive impact.
“With Jade, it helps with her anxiety a lot,” Krystal says. “That’s what’s kept her out of a lot of sports—her not being very social. So, with this sport, it’s more of a one-on-one thing, just you and the sport. So, she gets in a zone and really doesn’t think about people watching her as much.”
Krystal says Jade has made a “lot more friends … and come out of her shell a little bit,” from making conversation to feeling more at ease.
“Now when she goes to a meet, she says hey to everybody, hey to the coach, she’s real verbal,” Krystal says. “At the first meet, it was kind of like the new kid at school. She was real reserved. Now, she helps other people.
“I wouldn’t have expected her to do that … to ever be that confident.”
Piper’s mom, Ashton Whitty, sees a confidence boost in her daughter, too.
“She’s definitely a lot more outgoing than she was before. … Bless her soul, there are children that are coordinated and athletically inclined, and there are children that aren’t. And Piper is one of those — her coordination is just not there. But, archery has given her a chance to participate in a sport that she loves… and she excels.
“Where usually you would feel discouraged with sports, she now has a positive view on athleticism. … She’s learned a lot of really good character lessons from archery.”
Want to get these girls riled? Ask if boys, with greater upper body strength, have an advantage in archery. Maybe because of arm strength but not because of skill, Jade says. Piper pipes up with a flat-out “No!”
“Let me just tell you! Everybody that has not witnessed archery thinks, ‘Oh, it’s a girl shooting! She’s going to be so much worse than a boy!’ It is totally different,” Piper says. “I would say girls (take to) archery easier than boys, because every year the girls constantly score higher.
Jade was the top scoring girl in archery at the State Games held in Meridian in June 2017. Piper was the No. 1 girl in the 2017 AIMS state championship.
“Girls take archery like boys take football,” she says. “But boys take archery just kind of like, ‘meh.’ If they shoot one bad arrow, ‘Let me just fling the rest in there.’”
The girls recall their opportunity at the international competition—the long drive, the huge venue, the teams from South Africa, Argentina, England, and more. They said the shooting was decent but could have been better, and they have the hunger to compete again.
“I feel like, with the team, we’re on now, we can go again,” Piper says. “We were the first Mississippi team to go, and I feel like that is amazing in itself.”
Sherry Lucas is a freelance writer for Mississippi Outdoors.