In a warehouse off Kalifornsky Beach Road, the modern-day successors to William Tell and Robin Hood busy themselves each Saturday honing their target shooting skills. Kids ranging in age from 8 to 18 take careful aim at round targets placed in front of a distant wall.
A couple of grown-ups are patiently helping the young archers perfect proper technique and form. Some of the kids are novices, visibly shaking and twitching as they try to take aim. Others seem to shoot every arrow into the center of the ring.
This is the Junior Olympic Archery Development Program, and it's sharp.
Program director Leroy Legg started the program simply as a way for kids to get involved in the sport.
"We're just here for the promotion of archery," Legg said.
He started the program six years ago with a couple kids and the idea that a solid program could be built. Since then, he's seen the Kenai Peninsula archery program take off. Usually, around 20 JOAD members meet each Saturday at John's Bow Shop on Poppy Lane, just off K-Beach Road.
Though they go for a variety of reasons, their participation alone is proof that archery, a pursuit popularized in medieval times when bows and arrows were the most feared weapon around, is alive and well on the peninsula.
And some of the area's most accomplished archers aren't even old enough to qualify as "merry men." In fact, some of the best aren't men at all.
One of the kids who was with Legg at the beginning is Skyview High School senior Oneida Cason. Cason, 18, is now one of the top junior archers in the country. Last year, she was the 10th-ranked female archer in the nation at the intermediate level of the recurve class. Recurve bows are the type used in Olympic competition.
Last year, Cason placed fifth at the 117th annual national championships. The year before that, she won the National Junior Olympic Target Championships.
Oneida Cason offers a tip to other shooters. The Skyview High School senior has excelled in the sport of archery.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
Cason said she's been shooting arrows since her father got her into archery as a little girl. She said since she got involved with the Junior Olympic program, the competitive fire has really started to burn.
"I've been here since it started. I love JOAD. I love to compete. It's awesome," she said.
Peninsula archers compete with archers from around the nation, but the competitors rarely get a chance to see their rivals face to face. In order to hold competitions between archers from different areas of the country, scores are phoned or faxed-in for comparison.
However, that doesn't stifle the thrill of competition, Cason said.
"It's fun to go against the same people who you only know from their scores, but you know who they are and you're always trying to beat them."
The competitions JOAD members take part in are held at individual clubs, then scores are compared, Legg said. He said the level of junior archers on the peninsula is comparable to anywhere in the country.
"Our club does really well in regional and national competitions. We have some of the best archers in the world here."
However, the main focus of the program isn't on winning. The competition aspect isn't even emphasized, according to Mary Kennedy, whose daughter, Emily, is a JOAD archer.
"The thing I like about Leroy is, he lets the kids compete if they want to compete, but there's no pressure at all," Kennedy said.
Legg said that's the best way to keep kids interested.
Emily Kennedy watches as her father John demonstrates an archery technique.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
"The kids can go as far as they want. If they want to pursue the competitive end, we help them out. But I don't require them to be here every week or anything like that. No champion was ever made by being made to do something. The kids show up on their own."
JOAD was started in 1961. The program is run by the National Archery Association, archery's governing body in the United States. There are currently more than 250 JOAD chapters across the United States. The Kenai Penin-sula club started in 1996.
Legg said the club is for anyone who might want to try archery, regardless of their skill level.
"No experience is necessary at all. We usually let the kids come in for a couple weeks just to try it out before they even really get started," he said.
Legg said the best thing about archery is that it's something the whole family can do. Unlike many more physical sports, archery can be a lifetime pursuit. That's why it's good to get kids involved from a young age.
Kennedy said her 13-year-old daughter was interested in archery pretty much as soon as she could walk.
"When Emily was little, my husband used to take her with him when he'd go out. They just started doing it on their own. When Leroy started the JOAD, we were the first to sign up," she said.
She said archery is the perfect sport for kids who might be looking for something a little different from more popular sports.
"It's nice because kids have something different available. It gives kids who might not otherwise compete another thing to try," Kennedy said. She said the low-key element inherent in a sport where having to hold still is paramount may draw kids turned off by more high intensity sports.
"Leroy is very patient with the kids. They are allowed to progress at their own pace. I think that's what a lot of them like about it," she said.
Kennedy puts the technique to use on the firing line.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
Although archery might not be the most popular sport on the peninsula, JOAD members don't have any complaints. Legg said be-tween 12 and 20 kids show up each week, and once they start, they're usually hooked.
One enthusiastic member of the club is 12-year-old Shelly Burke. Burke said she loves the sport, even if her classmates might not understand it very well.
"They think I'm kind of like an Indian or something," she said of her classmates thoughts on archery.
Burke said she shrugs off any misunderstandings she might encounter from schoolmates.
"I think it pushes me harder. I just like competing," she said.
Legg said the love of competition and the challenge of a new sport is what brings most new members into the club. He said some kids have archery or hunting backgrounds, but not all.
"You don't have to be into hunting or anything like that. It's a very individual, very self-actualizing sport."
Legg said archery can be a way for kids who lack focus to gain patience and discipline. He said he's seen lots of kids change their attitudes through participation in archery.
"Sometimes you get kids who are headed for trouble and this can turn them around. It teaches concentration and discipline. Everyone helps everyone else out," he said.
The aim of the Junior Olympic program isn't to get kids out shooting animals with arrows, Legg said, it's to get kids involved with a sport they can pursue for a lifetime. Especially during the long, cold winter months, archery can provided kids with a much-needed outlet for their cabin fever.
Once summer rolls around, they can take their skill outside and practice under the summer sun.
Kennedy reacts to a well-placed shot.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
Legg said the Kenai Penin-sula Archers, an area archery group for the older archers, maintains an outdoor archery range near Skyview High School that is the perfect place for families to gather and enjoy the sport together.
"The whole family can go out to the range, shoot, maybe have a picnic -- just have fun and enjoy it," Legg said.
He also noted that without the financial and moral support of the Kenai Archers, as well as other volunteers like himself, the peninsula JOAD program wouldn't exist.
"The Kenai Peninsula Archers finance awards, transportation and insurance. John's Bow Shop gives us a special rate so it's easy for kids to get involved," Legg said.
It takes a lot of support to keep the program going, he said, but it's well worth the time.
While Legg talked, a small boy walked past, a quiver of arrows hanging from his waist.
"You going to be here next week?" Legg asked.
The boy smiled a big, shy smile, then muttered a small "yep" before shuffling toward the door.
The feeling of achievement and camaraderie the kids get is what the program is really all about, Legg said.
"Nobody shoots well the first time, but they always get lots of positive feedback. That's what's really great about it. You get teens helping younger kids, everybody helps each other. There's a real closeness that develops," Legg said, smiling, while watching the boy slip out the door.
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