SOLON, Iowa — Fifty student archers are seated silently on chairs stretching in a line the length of the Solon High School gym, their backs to a large crowd of equally quiet parents and onlookers in the bleachers.
Two whistle blasts pierce the air and the students – grades four through twelve – calmly stand, remove their bows from a rack and carefully position themselves on a shooting line before 25 bull's-eye targets.
"You'll see a fourth-grader with a bow bigger than he is standing next to a huge high school football player and he doesn't back down a bit,'' said Gary Mechtensimer, Solon archery coach. "It's amazing how focused some of these kids are.''
A standing floor quiver holds five arrows for each shooter at the line, color-coded to the archer. Each competitor will share a target with an archer standing next to him or her.
At this point, you can hear a pin drop in the spacious gym.
When officials are satisfied everyone is lined up properly, a single whistle blast sounds and the archers calmly begin firing their arrows. They have two minutes to shoot all five, then retreat from the line.
When the arrows stop flying, three whistle blasts signal the kids to approach their target, stopping at another line in front of it. One at time, they examine the arrows, call out the score of each arrow shot by their partner/opponent and write it down on a clipboard.
This was the scene in Solon the first weekend in January as some 500 young archers from eight area schools gathered for a league tournament.
Student archery programs like this one are booming in Iowa, and Solon in particular.
Coach Mechtensimer started with nine shooters when he founded the Solon program eight years ago through the DNR-sponsored Iowa branch of NASP (National Archery in the Schools Program). This year, he has 97 shooters, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported.
The DNR reports that the Iowa program has grown from 20 to 300-plus schools in 12 years. Some 650 Iowa students were initially involved in competitive tournaments – now there are more than 3,000, according to the program's state coordinator, Donise Petersen.
Nationwide, the NASP program has grown to nearly all 50 states and now involves more than two million students, plus has spread to foreign countries. The Solon coach said there is speculation that "someday there may be more kids in archery than Little League baseball.''
Why the rapid growth?
"Archery fits everybody, no matter how strong you are or what your physical status is,'' Mechtensimer said. He said that appeals to a growing number of kids who might not be as interested in the typical school sports like football, basketball or track.
The Solon program appears to be exceptional. Mechtensimer said three years ago, the team consisted of 35 archers and 33 three of them qualified for the state meet. Two years ago, Ben McAtee of Solon was the overall state champion – a remarkable feat considering about 1,700 archers compete at the state level.
The closest schools to Solon with archery programs at present are at Mount Vernon and Prairie of Cedar Rapids, although some interest has been shown in Iowa City, the coach said.
He credits any Solon success to his staff of five assistant coaches, plus an active support group of parents and fundraisers who assist with all facets of the program. Everybody, he said, is an unpaid volunteer. The Solon Spartan Archery Team is school-based, but is not a sanctioned school sport or directly funded by the school.
Archery has been paramount in the Solon coach's life since 1974 when he was disabled as the result of a hunting accident.
"I was guiding a group and was shot in the back with a 12-gauge shotgun from two feet away,'' he said, adding that after two years of being in and out of hospitals, he took up archery.
He later became a certified instructor and worked extensively teaching the sport to people with disabilities, including "300 kids in wheelchairs over a couple of summers at UNI.'' His Solon team still assists UnityPoint Hospital and Kirkwood Community College with a program called "The Sport Sampler'' which offers people with disabilities a chance to try several different sports.
Working from his own wheelchair, he now teaches Solon kids archery during twice-weekly sessions, plus accompanies them to advanced tournaments as far away as Kentucky and Florida.
He thinks he is in a perfect position to stress the safety procedures that are hallmark of this sport.
"When I first meet with the kids and they see me enter in a wheelchair, they sit up straight,'' he said. "I tell them right off about my accident and explain why we are so strict on safety.''
Students often attend two or three sessions before they are allowed to work with arrows. No cellphones are allowed. A student gets one warning for a violation of any of the safety rules, no matter how minor, and is removed from the program if it happens a second time.
"During tournaments, if a shooter drops an arrow, they cannot even pick it up,'' he pointed out. "We always carry one spare arrow, and if they raise their hand, we'll bring it to them. We always stress that accidents can happen so quick, and there are no do-overs.''
It is very rare, but if at any time students hear five whistle blasts, the danger signal, they stop shooting at once, hang up their bow, sit and wait. There may be something wrong with the range or it could be a person somehow ended up in the line of fire.
As a result of the safety emphasis, he said, "the only sport safer than archery is ping pong.''
Mechtensimer's attitude reflects his fondness for teaching this sport. Although life dealt him a second severe blow with a stroke in 2006, he remains cheerful and plans to keep coaching and promoting student archery at a high level in Solon.
"I love it, and the kids really respond to it,'' he said.