World Champion female archer Jennie Richardson's true passion is to bring archery to school kids across Kentucky and the world
It had come down to the final shot. Jennie Richardson had come back from a nine-point deficit to tie for first place at the August 2007 finals of the Archery Shooters Association Realtree Classic in Ft. Benning, Georgia.
As she pulled back her bow and released during the final head-to-head shoot-out, 3,000 people sat behind her watching, holding their breath. But Richardson didn't notice any of them.
"I didn't even know anyone was there," says Williamsburg's Richardson. "I was so in the zone."
When her arrow hit its mark, Richardson sealed her first-place win and took claim to the title of World Champion female archer that year. With everything on the line, Richardson approached that target like she does every one: knowing she can make it.
"Whenever I'm shooting, I expect to hit what I'm aiming at. I think, 'This is no big deal, I do this all the time.'"
Sharing her sport
At Richardson's lovely Williamsburg home--which she and her husband, Mike, built 25 years ago from stones found on their property and Mike's grandmother's land--the walls of her office are covered with plaques honoring her many archery accomplishments.
Among the dozens of first- and second-place honors, one from 1998--her first year shooting competitively--particularly stands out. That year, Richardson took title to Cabela's NBHA Circuit Shooter of the Year for women's intermediate, an honor that propelled her into the pro class in 1999, just her second year on the circuit.
There are framed magazine and newspaper stories, including her feature in the December/January 2008 issue of Outdoor Life, which named her one of the magazine's Outdoor Life 25, an honor it bestows each year on 25 people making the most positive impact on the world of hunting, fishing, and conservation.
But it's Richardson's refrigerator, perhaps, that bears the mark of her greatest success in her sport. There, covering the front alongside photos of her husband and sons, Dustin, 27, and Justin, 25, are snapshots from kids throughout the state she's introduced to archery.
Richardson names them all with pride: "This one's from Meade County. This one's from Whitley County. He's from Cadiz. This one lives in Murray. They are Whitley Countians."
For seven and a half years, as archery coordinator for Kentucky's National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP), which she helped launch in March 2002, Jennie Richardson has shared her love of archery with literally thousands of kids across the state.
Make that hundreds of thousands.
Last year, more than 300,000 Kentucky students in more than 850 schools participated in the NASP program, which incorporates Olympic-style archery instruction into physical education courses for fourth- through 12th-graders. The program even offers possibilities for lesson integration with some core content classes like science and math.
Everywhere the NASP curriculum has been implemented, teachers report the same positive effects for their students, Richardson says.
"The focus, the discipline. The on-task performance. Peer acceptance. Confidence. Morale. We've shown that the archery program boosts all of them," she says.
Students who use to laze uninterested in the bleachers during physical education instruction in basketball or other mainstream sports get up and participate in the archery lessons.
"Archery levels the playing field," says Richardson, who taught eighth-grade math at Whitley County Middle School and had coached the Whitley County girls basketball and softball teams for 15 years before resigning to accept the archery coordinator position with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
"Regardless of gender, size, ability, skill, strength, speed. There are no barriers. Anyone can do it."
Richardson's own son, Justin, who suffers from a congenital heart condition and has an artificial aorta, excelled in Whitley County's archery program.
Richardson has seen children with all types of challenges--from cerebral palsy to autism--excel at archery, when other sports would have been out of reach.
In fact, it was her own severe shoulder injury that led Richardson herself to discover the world of competitive archery.
Not wanting to be left out of a family bowhunting trip in 1997, Richardson took her bow to a London shop called The Tackle Spot and told them to modify it so she could temporarily shoot with her teeth, "Tim Farmer style," while her shoulder mended.
While there, she got to talking with some of the ladies at the shop, who told her about archery competitions happening nearby. Before that, Richardson, who had bowhunted for years, "didn't even know it was a sport," she says.
Through their mutual work at Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Resources, Richardson and Farmer, the host of Kentucky Afield, are now friends, and he often teases her that he deserves some of the credit--and a commission for--her eventual success in the sport.
The NASP curriculum--which is now being implemented in 5,000 schools in 46 states and five countries--was co-created by the Kentucky Departments of Education and Fish and Wildlife Resources. Written by Connie Shackelford and Agnes Durbin, curriculum specialists from the Department of Education, it incorporates activities Richardson had integrated successfully into her own math classes and in an after-school archery program at Whitley County by 2001.
It was the success of the NASP program and her role in advancing archery instruction that earned Richardson Outdoor Life's accolade in 2008. In Kentucky, interest in the NASP program continues to explode--thanks in no small part to Richardson's tireless efforts to promote her sport.
"What Jennie brings is a remarkable passion for archery and for young people," says Tim Slone, Richardson's director at Fish and Wildlife's Division of Information and Education. "Her enthusiasm is contagious."
Richardson expects the program to be in 1,000 Kentucky schools by next year. Already, 600 of the participating schools have launched after-school clubs. Many have asked her to help develop programs to introduce kids to other aspects of archery like 3-D shooting. At this year's NASP national tournament in Louisville, one-third of the participating shooters--1,456 representing 72 schools--were from Kentucky.
"They are shooting better than the equipment was designed to shoot," says Richardson, whose sponsor, Mathews Inc., is the maker of the Genesis bow that students in the NASP program use. "That just tells me how much they're practicing."
Still a teacher at heart, Richardson makes it a point to mentor dozens of students interested in archery from across the state.
Kids like 13-year-old Michael McIver of Frankfort, whose type-1 diabetes made him reluctant to participate fully in other sports.
"She has such a love for these kids like Michael, who are nontraditional sports kids," says Michael's mom, Robin McIver. "She just has a way of making them feel welcome. It's amazing how this has helped his self-confidence grow."
As kids show interest in advancing outside of NASP to compete in Archery Shooters Association or International Bowhunting Organization (IBO) tournaments, Richardson is on hand to offer advice on everything from what bow to shoot (she uses a Mathews Prestige at 56 lbs.) to perfecting their stance and hand release.
Mark Leigh of Eubank felt "over my head a mile" when his son, Chad--who was introduced to the sport through the NASP program at Northern Middle School in Pulaski County--was asked to join the Junior Olympic Archery Team as a 15-year-old. But Richardson was on hand, "helping us navigate all that," he says.
Before beginning the NASP program three years ago, neither Kayla Dowell of Payneville, now 12, or her parents had ever picked up a bow. Now Dowell loves all things archery and idolizes Richardson, calling her "Aunt Jennie." She credits Richardson for helping her perfect the Tru Ball ST-3 hand release, which has helped her win against much older girls.
"Jennie is all about the kids," says Misty Cundiff of Somerset, whose son, Taylor, 15, has been shooting with Richardson since he was 9. "You could call her right now and say, 'This kid doesn't have the proper equipment,' and she would find a way to get it."
Robin McIver agrees: "There are so few people you meet in sports that you can truly say, your child can look up to them and it's okay. They have good morals and good values and you just know when your child is with them, they're being taught everything exactly right. That's Jennie."
On a recent weekend in advance of a tournament in London, Kentucky, Richardson had roughly 20 kids at her house taking practice shots at the menagerie of 25 3-D targets--everything from standing bears and mule deer to turkeys, Russian boars, and hyenas--that hide in the trees surrounding her home.
She might have needed the time to prepare for her own upcoming tournaments--she'll be shooting at the IBO World Championship in Holiday Valley, New York, August 13-16--but Richardson wouldn't have had it any other way.
Sharing archery with students is her true passion.
"She has absolutely put herself on the shelf. Even though she still shoots competitively and she shoots well--she doesn't have the time to practice 24/7 like some of the girls she shoots against," says Ronda Jordan-Elam of Tompkinsville, a regional coordinator for Kentucky's NASP program. "She would rather--and I've seen her do it--come off the range to work with kids, instead of being where she needs to be for herself. She'll put her energy in the kids instead."
"I was active in sports growing up and I realize how important the extracurricular involvement of a coach can be in guiding someone in the right direction," says Richardson, who's placed third in tournaments in Alabama and Indiana so far this year. "I've always believed in giving back more than I received."
Richardson likes to get in at least an hour to an hour and a half each day of practice. For her, archery is relaxing. It's a release: she loses herself in the rhythm and the precision of it.
But her job traveling across the state to promote NASP sometimes keeps her from practicing as much as she'd like. At those times, she credits her coach, Curtis Beverly of Georgia, with helping her keep focus.
It's all about mental management: having that confidence that when you take a shot, you're going to make it.
And for Jennie Richardson, if the target is anywhere within roughly 100 yards, more often than not, she does.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT ARCHERY
Visit Kentucky's National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP) at the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources Web site, www.fw.ky.gov. Click on "Education and Outdoor Activities," then "Archery in the Schools." The site includes a list of 12 regional coordinators who can help answer questions about the NASP program in your area. Or check out www.archeryintheschools.org for the national Web site.
See a YouTube video about Kentucky's NASP program in action at www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6p9aCGQ5uA, which explains how the program is "Changing lives one arrow at a time."
Find out more about Jennie Richardson online at www.jennierichardson.com.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: ARCHERY GRANTS FOR SOUTHEASTERN KENTUCKY SCHOOLS
Kentucky's NASP recently partnered with Operation UNITE to provide grants to support the adoption of the NASP program in schools in 29 southeastern Kentucky counties. To learn more about Operation UNITE and the unique partnership, go to archery school grants.