Jonathan Papelbon is better at archery than I am.
Most people can just assume that the Phillies' Louisiana-born closer is a better archer than they are — but I have the benefit of unequivocal proof. At a recent outing at B&A Archery in Tacony, I got to see Papelbon show me up in person. I didn't mean to tread on Papelbon's turf, but B&A is the only range and archery outfitter within the city limits, and it turns out the all-world closer is an archery enthusiast.
Which explains why he was there. Why was I — a 26-year old who considers a night sans premium cable to be "roughing it" — at an archery range on a random Tuesday?
The Olympics, of course. Every couple years, we gather to watch world-class athletes participate in this massive sporting extravaganza. And every time, along with marveling at the pageantry of the opening ceremony and the drama of the glamour events (track and field, gymnastics, basketball), another thought crosses our mind, at least when it comes to the less-than-mainstream events (that means you, team handball!): How is that an Olympic sport? Don't lie, even the laziest among us wonders how a gold medal can be achieved at, say, table tennis. Pingpong is an after-school activity, it's not a sport. Really, how hard can winning a gold in one of these dumb sports be?
I decided to find out, once and for all. I chose to try archery because it looked like fun and because I figured if I was going to be humiliated in pursuit of journalistic excellence, I was going to look like a badass doing it.
Archery has been part of the Olympics 14 times, appearing regularly since 1972. This year, the United States' favorite is a guy named Brady Ellison, a scruffy dude who looks as if he wears a lot of silver and turquoise jewelry, unironically. He's the world's No. 1 ranked archer. In an episode of ESPN's "Sports Science," he shot an arrow through a doughnut hole from 70 meters away (it's pretty sweet, look it up on YouTube). The only thing potentially more badass than using pastry as a target is this: Ellison's main rival, South Korea's Im Dong-Hyun, refuses to wear glasses, even though he has 20/200 eyesight, meaning he's legally blind.
B&A has two floors full of targets. The targets on the bottom floor at 20 yards away from the shooting line. Lining the walls are bales of hay, and mounted on the wall is a massive buck head, next to a giant eagle-esque bird that could possibly eat me if it weren't stuffed. I'm glad it's not alive. Tacked on the wall is an ad for Wendell's Taxidermy in Pennsuaken. "The only thing that's missing is a Heartbeat," it reads.
B&A is owned and run by Bill Arrow. I promise I didn't make that up, that's his real name. Bill's got a frosting of white scruff on his face and a round belly. He's no-nonsense but nice, stern without being condescending, and he didn't seem concerned by how I terrified I was of accidentally shooting myself in the foot. Or worse: accidently killing Jonathan Papelbon. Arrow's hands have callouses on his index, middle and ring fingers where he pulls the bow string back, just like I have a callous on my middle finger where I hold a pen. His hands shake ever so slightly when he's showing me how to set up my arrow (the odd-colored feather facing me, pushed up to a notch on the bow string). But when he holds the bow in position, he's completely still.
Anyone can shoot at B&A, even people who don't have any equipment. Arrow says the best time for his personal attention is on weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m. and weekends. While I was there, I met Annalisa and Anthony D'Angelo, who co-own Ippolito's Seafood in South Philly. They have three kids at home, so this their makeshift date night. Arrow gets a lot of dates looking to shoot together. What's that old adage my mother imparted on me years ago? The couple that practices shooting large game together stays together?
Arrow hooked me up with a compound bow first. With a compound bow, there's a cam at the bottom and an idler wheel at the top acting like a pulley system, all of which makes it easier to pull back the bow string. This kind of bow corrects problems with form, which makes it easier for a beginner. Arrow sets up a bale of hay about 10 feet in front of me with a target pasted on. (For the record, Papelbon was consistently hitting bull's-eyes at the 20-yard mark.)
Arrow gave me a quick lesson: how to stand (left side facing the target, feet parallel and shoulder-width apart), where to put my hands (right thumb underneath my chin, index finger at the right corner of my mouth) and how to aim. I had problems with the aiming, so Arrow took to standing behind me and directing my shot. At one point, he held my neck in the right position so I could see where I was supposed to be shooting. I declined to tell Arrow that I was inadvertently closing my eyes.
The shooting was the easy part. Just let go.
It hit the target! I am Katniss Everdeen! I am John Rambo! I am that cartoon chick from "Brave"!
Shooting that first arrow felt like the first time you get to drive by myself or that feeling you get right after you get a tattoo. Power and control. Awesome.
I proceed to take a quiver-full of shots. I even hit the bull's-eye (or close to it) a couple times.
Annalisa agreed. She practiced her stance. "It's kind of a rush!" she said.
Since I was feeling pretty good about myself, Arrow then outfitted me with a traditional recurve bow. A recurve bow is what Olympians use because your technique needs to be perfect. Think of the bow that Robin Hood uses — that's a recurve. It's harder to pull back the bow string and it's not forgiving when it comes to mistakes. I set up the same way, or at least I thought I did. By this time, Arrow had left me to my own devices, which proved to be somewhat of a problem.
I pull back the bow string for my first arrow. It goes sailing over the bale of hay. A second arrow does the same. From his stool in the back, Arrow directs my bow, telling me exactly what I'm doing wrong. Turns out, his aim without a bow is better than mine even with it. "Higher. To the right," he directed.
I take a break, which allows me to interrogate Papelbon.
"So, Jonathan," I ask. "Where do you hunt around here?"
"I don't," Papelbon replies.
Annalisa jumps in: "Why are you here?"
She actually doesn't seem to know who he is.
"Oh, are you here temporarily?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"What do you do?"
"I play baseball."
"Like, for the Phillies?" Annalisa asks, unfazed. "What's the matter with you guys?"
"We just suck," Papelbon says.
"No, there's something wrong with your spirit," Annalisa says.
Annalisa gave Papelbon some more advice, and then picked up a bow. And without nearly as much instruction as your narrator, she started shooting arrows straight into the target. Later that night, Papelbon would retire the Brewers with a 10-pitch ninth inning, cementing the Phillies' 7-6 come-from-behind win. Clearly, whatever Annalisa said worked.
Later, trying to figure out what I learned from this exercise in stunt journalism, I thought about Papelbon. And not just about his spirit. Here's a guy who has excellent hand-eye coordination, who makes his living from his physical gifts—and he's probably still not half as good as ol' Brady Ellison, nor even close to the guys who don't even get to stand on the podium. And it made me think that maybe instead of scoffing at the pseudosports on TV every year, we should get off our couch and give them a try. B&A Archery, 7169 State Road, 1-9 p.m., Mon-Thu.; 1-6 p.m., Fri.; 12-6 p.m., Sat.; 12-4 p.m., Sun, 215-333-3520, bnaa.biz.
Want to prove to yourself that Olympic athletes are, in fact, better than you, there are several ways to do so. Check out some places where you, too, can participate.
Don't screw with 9-year-old Amy Wang. Mayor Nutter learned that the hard way after he tried to score a point against that national table-tennis champ and she schooled our leader at the opening the Trolley Car Table Tennis Club, the area's only full-time table-tennis club, founded by Ken Weinstein, the owner of Trolley Car Diner & Deli. There are eight tables, filled by players of all skill levels. Each month, they have a tournament sanctioned by USA Table Tennis (the next one is Aug. 11 and 12, register online to participate). Don't have a paddle or balls? No problem, equipment is lent for free and for sale at the club. There are even coaches available to help you with your game. Check out TCTTC site for coaches' contact info.
3300 Henry Ave. (Enter 1 Falls Center and take the elevator to the second floor), 6-10 p.m., Mon.-Fri.; 12-5 p.m., Sat.-Sun., $5 for a drop in visit, $40 monthly membership, $360 annual membership, 267-335-2743, trolleycarttc.com
The Main Line Badminton Club is one of many options for those looking to bat a shuttlecock around. Players of all skill levels, including some nationally ranked players who occasionally stop by for a round, take part at one of the club's four courts, located at the Bryn Mawr College School of Social Work. Club regular Jay Nicholas suggests participants bring their own equipment, although he'll sometimes bring extras. (Nicholas suggests Everyone's Racquet, 130 S. 12th St., 215-665-1221, everyonesracquet.com). A worthy racket costs anywhere from $45 to $225 for a top of the line racquet, whereas shuttlecocks go for $8-$30 per tube. There's no water fountain at the gym, so be sure bring a water bottle.
Bryn Mawr College School of Social Work gym, 300 Airdale Road, Bryn Mawr, 8-10 p.m., Mondays and Wednesdays, $5, usbadminton.net/web/mainline
Jenny Hatt's mom was too worried that her daughter would want to sign up for gymnastics, so she opted for synchronized swimming instead. Now, she coaches the team at the Freedom Valley YMCA. The team consists of girls from 9 to 17, but Hatt says she gotten interest from adults and would put a team together if there were enough interest. Anyone who is comfortable in the water is eligible to join. Lessons run all year, but the team will compete at the Keystone State Games next Friday at the York YWCA (320 E. Market St., York, PA, 717-845-2631, ywcayork.org) at 10:30 a.m.
Daniel J. Detwiler Phoenixville YMCA, 400 E. Pothouse Road, Phoenixville, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeff Salvage, an associate professor at Drexel by day, is one of the pre-eminent race-walkers in the area. The proprietor of racewalk.com us (an excellent resource for tips) used to organize a race-walk group but is still open to individual coaching in the Philly area. Contact him at email@example.com for more information.
The Philadelphia Spartans are a coed recreational wrestling crew open all — new to the sport or collegiate experience. Show up in your singlet or just a gym shorts and a T-shirt. The club hosts its own tournaments every year in June and October.
First Unitarian Church, 2125 Chestnut St. in the basement, 6:30-9 p.m., Mondays; 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m., Saturday, $50 for a 6-month membership and $5 per practice, $200 annual (no daily fee) or $10 per practice, phillyspartans.com.
The Fencing Academy of Philadelphia offers classes from ages 8 to adult, with even some septuagenarians getting in on the action. Don't worry if you don't already own a foil (that would be your sword), FAP has it all. Adult classes are offered at the Powelton Village and Germantown locations. Classes for beginners are broken up into 10-week sessions at a cost of $250. The next sign-up date comes around in the fall between Sept. 10 and Sept. 17. Advanced classes range in date and price. Private lessons can also be made by appointment.
Fencing Academy of Philadelphia, 3519 Lancaster Ave., 215-382-0293, fap-fencing.com
7500 Germantown Ave., Baird Hall, Studio A (on the campus of New Covenant), 215-382-0293, fap-fencing.com
Dr. Robert Sing wrote the book on throwing the javelin. No, seriously. It's called "The Dynamics of the Javelin Throw." Sing has been throwing for 45 years and was a finalist in the Olympic Trials in 1980 when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games. Sing holds a weekly camp at Penncrest High School in Media, but is contemplating moving it to his house to accommodate his ninth-grader, who just go into the sport and is apparently pretty good. If you want lessons from Sing, email him at Sing3035@aol.com, but only if you're serious. "I'm a coaches' coach at this point," Sing said. "I like the hardcore guys, the real serious guys. I can make you into a thrower but I need the dedication."