Three women stand with what appears to be an assortment of mismatched luggage outside the gym at Saanich Commonwealth Place. Destination: target practice.
Soon, the large bay doors swing open. They roll in densely packed rubber targets and hoist them atop wooden stands along the widest edge of the gym. The night prior most of the Victoria Bowmen Archery Club taking aim at Commonwealth Place were men; tonight a large component of the club’s female membership is represented. One such woman is Helena Myllyniemi, my instructor for the evening and bonafide dynamo: champion archer, coach and grandmother who lets me batter her with questions while she sets the targets.
Growing up in Finland, Myllyniemi took a train to school each morning and passed by a target field. She met an acquaintance who was a bowman and before too many years, she was competing at the national level. She continued in 1976 once she had moved to Canada, coached her kids – one also went on to compete at the national level – traveled to the Pan American games as a coach, the Olympics as an assistant coach and taught the skill at the University of Victoria. These days, she leads classes at Commonwealth Place through the Victoria Bowmen. From an 82-year-old woman in a wheelchair to children with autism, no challenge has been too great for one of Myllyniemi’s students to overcome with a bow.
“It makes them focus, calms them down,” she says of her work with autistic kids. “It works for someone who doesn’t like team sports. They only have to compete with themselves.”
My first task: two practice shots with an exercise band. Feet square with my shoulders, rubber in my left hand, I extend my left arm to my left and with my right hand pull the band taut toward my jawbone.
“Now let go!” Myllyniemi says.
We do it again, this time with a mindfulness of the muscles engaged in my back. I have no idea how well I’m fumbling through. With nothing to measure my performance against, I move on to the next step and feel zero judgment over my lack of knowledge.
I strap an arm guard to my left forearm and she hands me an Olympic recurve bow, which, as the name suggests, is used for Olympic competition, and curves away from the archer. By this time we have confirmed that my right eye is most dominant. She clips the bow to my left wrist with a short line, a step which allows the archer to follow through with the shot and let go of the bow completely without consequence. A finger tab slides below my middle three fingers on the right hand and becomes a buffer between me and the string. I assume the same position, this time in front of a target set in the middle of the gym.
The first of three arrows darts overtop of the target. I try to ignore our photographer, who stands at what I believe to be an inappropriately close distance to someone who has just missed her target by several feet. Unfazed, Myllyniemi instructs me to close my eyes, take a deep breath, focus, aim and release.
The sound of the arrowhead driving into the rubber rings out.
Just as I’m feeling proud of a couple of good shots, bulseyes, I believe they’re called, I take note that I’m standing at the children’s distance. (Though some of these little archers, including Myllyniemi’s 10-year-old granddaughter Anna Myllyniemi, who has been at it for six years already, have far more experience than their older counterparts and shouldn’t be underestimated.)
Myllyniemi says I’m a natural but then again, she has a way of speaking that makes it entirely unclear if what she’s saying is a joke. The anecdotes are coming fast and furious, always punctuated with a laugh. She competed in a 700-metre distance balanced on the edge of a snowy cliff in Austria in July. An eager archer once used an arrow clearly too short for his reach and drove it straight through his hand. She says I’m a natural.
The tension between Myllyniemi’s content and delivery is symbolic of the energy inside the gym.
I’m yukking it up with an undeniably charismatic woman and overhearing archers from age six to 60 fill the spaces between moments of deep concentration with words of encouragement. It’s so heartening, yet the element of danger remains.
Her six-year-old granddaughter Kate Myllyniemi stands with a recurve bow a foot taller than her, pulls back on the bow string, demonstrating a level of skill that surprises me.
On the end of the roughly 14-person row of bowmen, Diana Kuan and Marie Metcalf take aim. Kuan says she always wanted to try out the sport, but had no way to foresee that curiosity would give way to talent. Kuan is in her 40s and took up archery in 2011 with a six-session course from Myllyniemi. She became the B.C. indoor distance champion in 2012 and held the title at the 2013 competition. Metcalf, unlike Kuan on the recurve, uses a compound bow, palm outward. The two exude a calmness and with the bow strings draw parallels to some of life’s bigger challenges: how to approach goal-setting, body awareness and coping with change – as is necessary when equipment or conditions don’t remain constant. “There are days you know it’s not going to be your day, but you persevere,” Kuan says.
Helen Buck, an archer since ‘99 takes a moment away from her target to underscore a theme I have already found well-represented: “Archery’s a sport for everyone – even people in a wheelchair.” Myllyniemi tells me the story of a Maple Ridge woman who picked up a bow at 49 and competed at the Olympics at 65. “Archery can be at any age,” she says.
Back on the bench, we watch the line of archers focus on their goals ahead.
“So do you think you’ll come back?”
“I’d like to,” I say.
And I’m happy there’s no pressure to decide when.
To find out more about the Victoria Bowmen, or to sign up for a class, visit victoriabowmen.com.
Evolution of the club
Three years ago the Victoria Bowmen lost their longtime clubhouse and target ranges on the Canadian Forces property on Wilfred Road. The club is now headquartered on West Burnside Road and holds classes there, as well as Saanich Commonwealth Centre.
Victoria Bowmen have been well-represented on national teams and during Olympic and professional competition.