Wisconsin kid could be archery star
The future of American archery is standing on the deck of his parents' home, innocent blue eyes locked into a magnified peep sight with an arrow cocked on a metallic green bow near his chin.
On the quiet, picturesque banks of Lake Waubesa, John Klus Jr. hones his craft with what coaches describe as a rare and relentless attention to detail that belies his youth. It is here where Klus Jr. has acquired intricate skills that turn expert archers into slack-jawed believers at national tournaments across the country. Even at 11 years old, Klus Jr. is unequivocally considered one of the next great archers this nation has to offer, a legitimate Olympic hopeful at the 2016 Games in Brazil.
To find out why requires watching only a handful of arrows fired from his steady hands.
Five small circular targets fasten to a box 30 yards away near the middle of a pier affixed off the family backyard. Klus Jr. is preparing for a national outdoor championship in Hamilton, Ohio, a tournament that requires archers to shoot 48 arrows each at targets of 20, 25 and 30 meters. He is most certainly the favorite to win his age group.
He pulls the arrow backward, pausing until the muscles in his back add just enough pressure to perfectly execute his shot. The slightest miscalculation will send arrows flying into the crystal blue water or smacking into the family boat docked at the edge of the pier.
Yet the notion of failure does not enter Klus Jr.'s mind, a quality his coaches describe as rare at any level.
"He's just one of those people, which are very few and far between, that has got it," says Tim Strickland, a former longtime U.S. Olympics archery coach. "If you can get a person to realize the task is more important than the result, then and only then can you teach him how to excel. And he knows that and uses it."
When Klus Jr. finally feels the right tension balance in his shot setup — by his estimation five seconds to place arrow in bow, 10 seconds to lock his target, exhale deeply and pull back the bowstrings and seven more seconds to take his thumb off the trigger — the arrow springs into action, forcefully attacking the target.
He grabs another arrow from his back pocket and repeats his routine, raising the bow high in the air, securing his target, catching a deep breath and firing. Then again. And again.
Thunk. … Thunk. … Thunk. …. Thunk. …
It is rhythmic and beautiful in its own way, the kind of deft one-man performance you might find orchestrated by a piano-playing savant at a concert. Each arrow sticks firmly in or inches away from its respective bull's-eye: two in the upper left, two in the upper right, two in the middle, two in the lower left and two more in the lower right.
Satisfied, Klus Jr. sets his bow on the deck, adjusts his red hat over his sandy blonde hair and walks toward the target to collect 10 arrows and shoot another round.
"I don't really think about that much when I shoot," says Klus Jr., who has won three national 12-and-under tournaments in the past nine months. "I just think about hitting it on the center and executing. It just happens."
It all seems so easy and effortless now. But some time in the next year, Klus Jr. will be forced to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life. If he wants to make the Olympics as he says he does, he'll need to devote even more time to perfecting a solitary craft that already consumes much of his time — using an entirely different, more difficult bow structure.
Whether he's capable of achieving those dreams and whether he actually will are two very different questions.
"His commitment to excellence keeps him going," says Duane Price, a professional tournament archer who also coaches Klus Jr. "But one out of every 100 at that age will keep going up into their adulthood. Once they hit 16 or 17, it's about girls, cars and sports. Those things take precedence over archery. I've seen a lot of that come and go over the years."
John Klus Sr., a part-time hunting and fishing guide, handed his son a plastic bow and arrow for the first time at age 2. Of course, the signs of a child prodigy weren't evident then, when Klus Jr. would launch plastic arrows at nearby deer in the backyard.
But at age 5, Klus Jr. entered his first youth tournament and placed second. When he came home, he told his father that archery was what he wanted to pursue for the rest of his life.
"It was bizarre," his father says. "He fell in love with it the second he did it."
Klus Jr. continued practicing at his lakeside home, which features targets in the backyard and the garage. And his form improved considerably thanks to individual training sessions with Price, a Wisconsin native.
At age 9, Klus Jr. won the state championship by recording a perfect score of 300. Since then, his name recognition has grown in national archery circles.
He won the Junior Archery Olympic Development national championship last year in Sacramento, Calif., and he's the two-time defending National Field Archery Association champion in Las Vegas.
What separates Klus Jr. from peers is his ability to avoid buckling under the magnitude of a tournament moment. Because of his tremendous practice habits and will to win, a tournament setting is no different in his mind. His natural instincts also allow him to release a shot at the precise moment he feels an even weight distribution in his bow. Coaches say many people don't understand that feel and can only guess when such a moment arrives.
"Everybody calls him the 40-year-old 11-year-old," Klus Sr. says. "He's got this mature, laid-back demeanor to him. In pressure situations, it's funny. He's cool as a cucumber, unlike his father."
The most well known accomplishment in Klus Jr.'s short career came in March, when he set a United States record at the National Field Archery Association indoor championship in Louisville, Ky. Klus Jr. shot all 120 arrows into the "X" in the center of the bull's-eye at a distance of 10 yards for a perfect 600 score.
Klus Jr.'s performances the past two years have drastically changed his archery career arc. His father says the junior United States archery team is expected to bump him up next year into a division for 15 to 20 year olds and skip the 14-and-under division. More solid performances could lead to a spot on the next Olympic team.
"If he just keeps his head on straight and keeps doing what he's doing," Price says, "he's going to be a force to be reckoned with."
There are factors, however, that are particularly worrisome to his coaches.
While Klus Jr., a fifth-grader, clearly possesses unmatched talent, his focus is so singular that the notion of his burning out on the sport must be taken seriously. Linda Beck, a USA Archery coach based in Minnesota who teaches Klus Jr. with Skype video sessions on the Internet, demanded that he take one day off per week from archery.
On Thursdays, Klus Jr. and his father now hit golf balls at a local driving range instead. Otherwise, Klus Jr. would never take a day off in the summer.
"Some competitors, right now they play baseball," Klus Jr. says. "When they're playing baseball, I'm getting ready for archery, practicing a lot more. So I'm more focused for archery in the winter and in the summer now at tournaments."
Denise Parker understands the position Klus Jr. will face in the coming years, perhaps unlike any other person in modern American archery.
The 38-year-old Parker was introduced to the sport at age 10. Her skills were so advanced that, at age 14, she became the youngest member of the United States Olympic archery team at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
After competing in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, Parker moved to San Diego at age 20 to train full time. It was there, she says, where burnout on the sport finally took hold. She returned to participate in her third Olympics in 2000 but eventually quit competing in the sport for good.
Parker is now CEO of USA Archery, the training and selection body for the Olympics based in Colorado Springs, Colo. In her role, she often sees the most talented kids burn out from the sport while participating in youth archery programs.
"It's real common," Parker says. "In those pre-teen years, they're not ready to handle that sort of pressure. They don't have a sense of time. If I feel pressure right now, I know it's a busy time. They just think it's going to be like that forever. That's sometimes a pretty difficult thing to imagine."
If John Klus Jr. wants to take aim at the Olympics, first he'll have to learn how to use a different type of bow.
Parker says when she was a young teen in the late 1980s, she played three sports in school and focused specifically on archery only in the summer. But she describes the current setup for achieving Olympic stardom as entirely different.
In order to compete at an elite level, she says, kids must specialize to keep pace with other countries that start archers at such a young age. The United States even has a resident athlete program, located at the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif., that provides top-level archers and other athletes the opportunity to dedicate themselves full-time to the Olympics.
The consequence, Parker says, is that the possibility of burnout greatly increases.
Strickland, who coached Parker during her formative years, has seen first-hand the damage done to archers whose lives were one-dimensional at a training center.
"I'd rather have them cut their wrists than do that," Strickland says. "That's ruined more archers than it's ever helped. That's a bad environment, as far as I'm concerned. They don't have anything else to do."
Klus Sr. says the Olympic training program frowns on having resident archers until they reach age 14. Because of Skype and other technology, Klus Jr. essentially has his own resident archery program with coaches across the country from his home.
Still, Klus Jr. appears set on a path that could lead him away from home just as his teenage years are beginning.
An important decision looms for John Klus Jr. Though he doesn't have to decide today, each day he avoids it, practice opportunities are lost.
All of Klus Jr.'s tournament success thus far has occurred while using a compound bow — a precise, mechanical piece of equipment that features a levering system of cables and pulleys. But he'll need to switch to a recurve bow in order to qualify for the Olympics, the only international competition that does not include the compound bow.
Using the recurve bow, essentially a stick and string with no pulleys, would require Klus Jr. to start his training almost from square one. In the past, he has shot with a recurve bow on occasion, but not from a distance longer than 20 yards. The Olympic rounds are shot from a distance of 70 meters.
Klus Jr. already has considered making this transition and realizes how different his life will be afterward. He still makes time to hunt with his father in the fall, special bonding moments he'd likely need to surrender in order to pursue an Olympic dream.
"The recurve would be a lot different and harder to do," Klus Jr. says. "I would have to practice like every single day of the year. Right now, I don't practice in the fall very much. But I'll have to now if I shoot the recurve.
"You can't really stop. In the winter, if I started shooting the recurve again, I would have to start all over. Because it's not as easy to do as the compound."
His coaches are convinced that Klus Jr. can make the transition with enough practice. He is, after all, one of the most rare archery talents in the country. But Strickland notes that no guarantees exist because the odds of competing in the Olympics are astronomical — only three American men qualify for the Olympic archery team every four years.
"It's going to be a cool road if John decides to take it," Strickland says. "But there's some bumps out there."
Klus Jr.'s coaches also point out that American Brady Ellison, the No. 1-ranked archer in the world, already has helped set a precedent for beating the odds.
At age 16, Ellison switched from the compound bow to the less precise recurve bow for an opportunity at the Olympics. He also moved from his home in Arizona to the Olympic training center in California to work full time on his craft. His dedication and sacrifice has resulted in his second consecutive Olympics appearance next month in London.
"If Brady can make the transition," Beck says, "I'm confident that when John Jr. decides he wants to vie for the Olympics, he can make that conversion and switch over as well. There's more similarities than differences."
If Klus Jr. makes the switch and improves the way many believe he can, he, too, likely would find himself at the Olympic training center in California, where Ellison established himself as elite. But the question remains: How much is he willing to sacrifice, and will he fall by the wayside like so many others Parker, Strickland and Price have seen?
"I know the guys on the Olympic team that just made it," Price says. "They live at the training center. That's where you pretty much stay. It's a 24-7 commitment."
While standing on his parents' deck, Klus Jr. is asked if he believes he'll qualify for the next Olympics if he switches to the recurve bow. He pauses briefly and looks down, as if contemplating the potential sacrifices.
"Yeah, probably," he says matter-of-factly. "If not in 2016, then I would make it in 2020."
He pulls another arrow from his back pocket, secures it on his bowstrings and stares into the distance, focusing again on the tasks in front of him. Where he goes from here is up to him.
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