Zane Smith used to shoot bow and arrow for fun. It’s still fun now, but there’s more at stake than a broken arrow.
The 38-year-old Smith, who placed second at the Field Archery National Championships in Spokane in June, will reach the pinnacle of his brief yet successful endeavor into competitive archery when he takes the course at the World Championships in Wales on Sept. 1.
Smith, a self-described “archer head,” first picked up a bow when he was 15. Using an intense attention to detail that he learned while making saddles and doing leather work with his father, he rapidly became a good hunter and hobbyist archer. But it wasn’t until four years ago that he started entering national tournaments.
“I wanted to know what the difference between a good shooter and a great shooter was,” Smith said. “I wanted to know what made them so phenomenal.”
Smith competes in barebow, considered to be archery’s purest division. In barebow, archers use a nearly 50-pound recurve bow with no sights, stabilizers or rangefinders. For Smith, it’s all about feel and a mantra that never changes.
“First I see myself shooting a good arrow; I’m strong, deliberate, aggressive,” Smith, who builds high-end custom staircases for a living, said. “It’s powerful, but smooth at the same time.”
To the average onlooker, shooting a bow and arrow looks pretty straightforward: pull back and let go. But there’s much more to it than that, Smith said.
“It’s unlike any other sport; you internalize so much,” he said. “And your effort is only rewarded if it’s done in a controlled, directed manner.”
Archers are contortionists and mathematicians who shoot targets on steep upward and downward grades, adopting stances that first require precise calculation and then exact execution. During competition, they take to the field at 9 a.m. and return near 3 p.m. They pack lunches and back-up equipment in a backpack that doubles as a stool to rest on in between shots. Archers fire three arrows per target about every 15 minutes, shooting a total of 24 targets varying in size from a silver dollar to six inches in diameter, from a range of 10 to 50 meters.
Smith lives in Kila just north of Blacktail Mountain on 10 acres of mountainous terrain where 16 targets are set up as a training facility. He has trained under former Olympic champions and coaches, and is one of nine Americans headed to Wales and one of only three barebow competitors. The other two, his opponents in singles action and comrades in the team competition, are former world champions. At times, Smith is overwhelmed by his company.
“These guys are world travelers with credentials,” he said. “I’m just a guy from Montana.”
In fact, he’s the only Montanan competing.
At the World Championships barebow shooters compete for two days before the field is reduced from more than 40 archers to 16. Then the remaining field is ranked based on their two-day scores and seeded highest to lowest for an elimination-style tournament. Smith tracks his European competitors’ scores online and says his score at nationals would be good enough to get him in the top 16. If he shoots stellar, he thinks he could place even higher. But he remains humble. He doesn’t expect to win, but he hopes to compete until the end – three shots at a time.
In his realm, Smith is highly touted, so much so that his coaches say the Olympics are well within his sights. Smith, though, has other priorities. If he did try for the Olympics, he would have to travel up to 200 days a year, which, as a father of three, he isn’t ready to do.
“A part of me that would like to pursue the Olympics,” he said. “I could convert my gear and I think I would do well. But I love my family, I live in a great place and I still like to hunt.”
At times he is obsessive about archery and his work, but it is the patience and the persistence his father preached that has led him to the world stage, a quarter-century after he picked up his first bow.
“You try for perfect and accept what happens,” he said.
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