OTTUMWA – It was quite a busy night inside the Ottumwa High School rubber gymnasium on Tuesday.
That’s just what Deb Schlechter was hoping for. Over 90 students ranging from grades 4-12 took part in the first official regular season practice for the upcoming Ottumwa archery season.
Bows were handed out. Arrows were sent at targets. Another season is officially underway with an increase in numbers, in particular on the elementary and middle school levels.
“It’s really become an activity entire families can get behind,” Schlechter said. “We started out last year with 88 students and ended up with 80. Right now, we’re holding steady at 93 students. That’s the biggest group we’ve ever had.”
Tuesday’s first session of practice featured 33 elementary students taking part in archery. The growth on the younger level has allowed Liberty Elementary to have enough participation to field a team that will help represent the Ottumwa Community School District throughout the course of the 2019-20 season.
Schlechter credits a concerted effort to spread the word around town about the archery program during the course of the past few months.
“I had parents and myself going to back-to-school nights, open houses, getting articles out through local media and through the school website to get as much out as often as we could about the program,” Schlechter said. “We wanted people to be aware and to keep thinking about archery. We also offered a free month of practice in October for anybody that had never tried it before could come twice a week to try it out. The kids found out if they really wanted to try this. The parents found out if they had the time and wanted to be involved in this. The majority of the people stayed. Even for those that didn’t stay, it was an opportunity for them to try it out and know for sure. That’s what it’s all about.”
It’s hard to argue with the results for the Ottumwa archery program. During the past season, Ottumwa archers took part in the Iowa Games, the Iowa high school state archery tournament, the NASP national tournament and the State Games of America.
Returning archers like Ty Tucker and Kiley Bankson were naturals, picking up a bow once again while also providing assistance to those younger teammates that are new to the sport. Schlechter and Ottumwa elementary coach Cliff Tucker also spent the first hour of Tuesday’s first practice helping get those first-time elementary students adjusted learning the basic techniques of archery.
“It’s always intimidating to shoot that bow for the first time,” Schlechter said. “Their fingers hurt from pulling back and holding the string. Their arms hurt from trying to hold that bow. They’re just not used to those positions. There are some that thought there was a little too much standing, but we try to keep their attention focused.
“Most of the kids ultimately enjoyed it. If they got the arrow down on the target, they were happy. What we’re watching for is what we can do to make this an enjoyable experience for all the kids. We don’t want to see an archer that’s discouraged with nobody helping them with that discouragement. Everybody has to start somewhere. Our goal this year was to have all eyes on all archers to see what everyone is doing, what might be going through their heads and always find the positives.”
Ottumwa is hardly alone when it comes to embracing the sport of archery. Area schools including Cardinal, Albia and Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont have also found success at various levels of the sport with their own growing programs for students in elementary, middle and high school. Schlechter credits the inclusive nature of the sport as a selling point for kids, and parents, becoming involved.
“The best thing about this sport is that it’s something for kids to do,” Schlechter said. “I’ve had several parents tell me this is the only sport my kid wants to do. It’s a good sport because the entire family can be involved. It’s like bowling in that way. You can always go bowling with your family. In the summer, the family can go out to Izaak Walton or the Wapello Chiefs Bowmen and take part in archery. It’s another skill set for life. It’s something for kids to do when they don’t know what else to do.”
Ottumwa will continue to hold regular season practice each Tuesday at the OHS rubber gym starting with elementary students at 6 p.m. Middle school archers will practice at 7 p.m. High school archers practice at 8 p.m.
The first meet of the season for Ottumwa takes place at EBF on Saturday, Dec. 7 with 3D and block target competitions. The following week, Ottumwa hosts its first tournament on Dec. 14. Coming up in February, an even bigger archery tournament will be hosted by the Ottumwa program.
“Our home tournament will be sponsored by the Iowa Winter Games, which is a new event for us. We’re hoping to bring in a lot of people that want to compete in the Iowa Winter Games,” Schlechter said. “The kids that compete in the Iowa Games can also qualify to compete in State Games of America. That’s another wonderful opportunity.”