National champion archer Sophia Howard, 11, at her Sylvania home.
One minute, this 11-year-old from Sylvania is laughing, talking with her friends, acting silly, and just being a kid.
A moment later, when the whistle sounds to begin the competition, this somewhat shy and exceedingly humble young girl seals out the commotion and noise around her. She exudes a singular focus as she steps to the line to shoot.
If 11-year-old archers can have a “game face,” then Sophia Howard has put hers on.
That transformation took place again recently, on a huge stage in late July, when the soon-to-be sixth grader at McCord Junior High topped the field to win the national championship at the 2014 Easton Junior Olympic Archery Development Nationals, held in Hamilton, Ohio.
Sophie won the 8-12 year old “Bowmen” female division in the U.S. Archery event, beating the competition from across the country in the compound bow class, while shooting in front of thousands of spectators. She took the silver medal for finishing second in the U.S. Open competition, which included archers from all around the world.
So on the ride back to northwest Ohio, was she basking in her lofty status in the archery ranks, bragging about the medals or trophies that accompany such prestigious championships, or making a deal to shoot a Disney World commercial?
“On the way home, I was just thinking about how much fun I had, and that I met two other girls who became good friends with me — friends I think I’ll always have,” Sophie said. “I was just excited about the friends I made there.”
Is this yet another archery fanatic, hatched from the surge of popularity enjoyed by The Hunger Games books and movies, where the heroine is a young woman named Katniss Everdeen?
Not a chance.
Sophie watched her older brother Jordan and her dad Matt shoot in the backyard, years before the first book hit the market, and from a very early age she was determined to be part of the family’s avocation.
“It was something I just wanted to try. It looked really fun,” she said. “Plus, I’ve always been the type of girl that likes to be outside.”
Her father made her a longbow when she was only 2½. She got her first compound bow at about age 8, then her dad got Sophie involved in a local archery club. She began shooting in tournaments and received an upgrade to a second compound bow.
“When I first started out, I thought that I’d be that one kid who couldn’t learn how to do this,” Sophie said. “But I found out I like shooting in tournaments — I actually shoot better when I am under pressure.”
At one competition, an arrow Sophie released hit the target and bounced out, requiring her to re-shoot once the round was completed. So she stepped to the competition line, alone, with about 500 people watching. The pressure was intense, it appeared, but Sophie said she is not one to get a case of the butterflies.
“Her focus goes to a whole new level,” her father Matt said about Sophie’s demeanor in the moment.
“I used to focus on the people around me, but once I started to focus on just me and what I was doing, I did a lot better,” she said.
In January, 2013, Sophie took part in her first national championship tournament, held at Michigan State University, and finished 10th. That was her only tournament of the year.
“We weren’t sure she was going to like it,” Matt said, “but that just sparked her, so we upgraded the equipment.”
Sophie is coached by Jamie Van Natta, a staff member at the University of Toledo who is also one of the top-ranked female archers in the world. Van Natta has only been working with Sophie for a couple of months, but she recognized right away that this young girl was a special talent.
“What makes Sophie so exceptional is that she has this drive, this push where she really wants to do well,” Van Natta said. “What I see in her is what I had, that determination to not just look at this as a sport, but to make it a lifestyle.”
Van Natta, who has competed nationally and internationally for many years, said she marvels at Sophie’s composure and demeanor, and her recent national championship victory.
“I’m unbelievably proud of her, because she was competing against the best of the best in that event,” Van Natta said. “What differentiates people like Sophie is their drive. She wants to practice, she wants to practice even if it’s raining, she wants to work on her form when there are no targets to practice with.”
Her coach also believes that Sophie is amazingly adept at the technical side of the sport.
“She has a level of self-awareness that you just don’t see in people her age,” Van Natta said. “She is able to know what she did wrong, and know just what to do to fix it. Few people have that ability.”
Sophie has a ritual she goes through before each competition, using key words to remind herself to stay focused, be consistent, and simply have fun.
“We don’t ever pressure her to perform to a certain level,” Sophie’s mother Nicole said. “We’ve always been proud of Sophie and her sportsmanship. When she loses, she always shakes hands and congratulates the other girls.”
“For us, it’s just fun to watch her compete,” Matt Howard said. “We see too many kids at these tournaments that are brow-beaten by their parents, but we think this has to be fun for her, or there’s no sense doing it.”
Archery competitions are not the ultimate bull’s eye for Sophie, who owns a horse named “Lester” and has long-range plans of someday living in Arizona. Her most recent Christmas wish list includes throwing knives and a blow gun with darts.
She has her sights set on trying bow hunting, said her dad, who took a black bear with a longbow while hunting in Ontario last year.
“She’s outdoors all of the time,” her dad said about Sophie. “So I’m perfectly OK with her going hunting.”
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.