Archery attracts interesting people, from actor Geena Davis, to country singer Luke Bryan, to congressman and former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Now meet Laura Bennett Shelton, the latest celebrity to find a home on archery’s tournament circuit.
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in New Orleans but lived in New York City most of my adult life. I’m an architect by trade, but I haven’t worked as an architect for many years. Even when I did, I was mostly in product design. I have six children, and we moved from New York to Pennsylvania two years ago when my husband died of cancer. Though I never had any formal fashion-design training, ironically, I’m best known as a fashion designer. That’s because one day, on a whim, I auditioned for a reality show called “Project Runway.” I didn’t win, but I made it to the finals. I think because I wasn’t the typical contestant – 20-something and fresh out of design school – people remember me.
How did you discover archery?
I’ve always loved target sports, and when I moved from New York City to Pennsylvania I took up skeet. There are no indoor shotgun facilities, and a couple of really cold winters got me looking for something to shoot inside. A friend who bowhunts suggested archery. He was a compound shooter, but I was instantly drawn to the elegance of recurve bows. Just one draw, anchor, release, and I was hooked.
Tell us about your archery goals and your plans for reaching them. What’s your practice/tournament schedule?
I shoot almost every day because I enjoy it. I don’t think of it as a training schedule. I do work with my coach, Mike Usherenko, once a week. He is about one hour away in New Jersey, so after a one- or two-hour private lesson, I stay and shoot with the group lessons for three or four hours. On a typical day I shoot about three hours. I can shoot at home, both 18 meters indoors and 70 meters outdoors, so it’s easy to fit in time to shoot.
I’m 51 now, so my goals are internal. I compete because I enjoy shooting. I don’t feel I have anything to prove at my age. My goal this past year was to make the Indoor World Cup Finals. I competed in every stage to earn my point for showing up. I qualified for the finals ranked 13th, but won a match in the elimination rounds and ended up sixth. The match ended up 5-5 and went to a one-arrow shoot-off. The whole thing was shown on the Jumbotron in Las Vegas. That was amazing.
I definitely want to compete in the World Master Games in New Zealand in 2017. My coach and his wife, Olga Usherenko, and I set that goal when I started archery two years ago. I’d like to earn my USAT ranking, so I’ll compete in all the outdoor ranking tournaments this summer, and I’ll definitely compete in the U.S. Olympic trials in September.
Besides tearing it up on the road to Rio, you’re well known for your time on “Project Runaway,” a fashion-design competition. What have you learned about yourself as a competitor? How has archery shaped that part of you?
I’m not really competitive against others. I actually got in trouble cheering for my opponent during a match in Arizona. I often shoot against people much younger than I am, and I can’t help but root for them. I’m an archer, but more than that I am a mom, so supporting young people in their pursuits comes naturally to me. That being said, I’m extremely competitive with myself. The overall outcome in a tournament isn’t nearly as important to me as my personal performance. If I’m happy with the way I shot, I don’t really care where I end up in the rankings.
At the Arizona Cup, I missed the U.S. Team trials cutoff by one point. I was ranked 17th. The girl ranked 16th literally was one point higher. During the entire qualifying process I had only two bad shots. I was happy with my performance, so I was fine with the outcome. Conversely, I’ve won tournaments when I didn’t shoot my best, but there was no real competition. That never feels like a real accomplishment.
Competing on “Project Runway” and in archery taught me a lot about myself as a competitor. I’ve learned I have no control over how my competitors perform or what the outcome will be. All I can do is remain calm and focused, and shoot my shot.
Rumor has it that you were instrumental in USA Archery fielding a Masters team for the Pan American Championships. What sparked your involvement? What was it like representing the USA internationally? What does it mean to you to be a Masters archer?
I represented the U.S. internationally before the Pan Am Championships. When I started archery, I saw a tournament on the USA Archery website in Newberry, Florida. It was the team trials for the 2014 Indoor World Championships. I had never been to a tournament, and asked my coach if I would look ridiculous competing. He encouraged me to go, just to get tournament experience. I showed up, shot, and made the team by a half-point. I got to go to Nimes, France, and compete with two other girls, Rebekah McLeod and Megan Collins, for the U.S. It was awesome. I brought all my kids because I figured it was probably the last time I would ever compete in a world championship for anything, and this is something they should see.
My coach noticed the Pan Am Championships opened a Masters division. I attended the USA Archery annual meeting at the Outdoor Nationals, and asked if they intended to send a team. I was basically told it would be self-funded, and they felt there wouldn’t be enough masters interested in going. I convinced them to give it a try, and within 15 minutes we had a full team. Masters women from that U.S. team won gold, silver and bronze medals.
That just proves I’m not the only archer in my age category who’s shooting at a competitive level. Other women, like Kathleen Stevenson or Janis Grellner, can take me out on any given day. And the talent among men over 50 is phenomenal. I hope that USA archery remains open to international competition for Masters as World Archery expands the division. Besides, 50 is the new 30. Everyone knows that!
What do your six children think about this new chapter in your life? Do they shoot?
My children don’t pay too much attention. They’re used to me running here and there in pursuit of something. They probably think all moms take off to Morocco and Thailand to shoot arrows between PTA meetings. Don’t most moms have an 18-meter archery range in their living room?
I have two boys who shoot, and they’ll go with me to local tournaments, but they don’t seem to have the dedication to archery that it takes to succeed. They have other interests: lacrosse, music, drawing. I would love it if they shot with me, but I encourage them to find their own thing.
How do you manage work/life/mothering and archery? Do you have any tips for women looking to get serious about the sport?
I find the less time I have, the less time I waste. I don’t believe in finding time. You have to make time for the things you want to do.
I’ve told many parents the past year that they should introduce their daughters to archery; not their children, but their daughters, specifically. I never really thought about why I would say that until recently. Not only does archery help build skills like focus and patience, it’s an activity as intrinsic to human civilization as man harnessing fire. The ability to hunt with a bow and arrow allowed nomadic people to form communities. Archers are also historically associated with the honor of defending home and country, things usually linked to men. For those reasons, I find it extremely empowering for young women.
Recently the Northeast Council of the Girl Scouts of America asked if I would visit their camp programs this summer as a role model, and talk to girls about empowerment through their archery program. I’m honored to participate.
Another great attribute of archery is that archers of all levels compete next to each other. I know of no other sport where a beginner literally shoots on the same bale as an Olympian. At any given tournament, you don’t know who you’ll shoot with.
I’ve also been to tournaments where Lancaster Archery sponsors an event called “Practice with the Pros,” where kids can meet the biggest names in archery, get their autographs, ask questions, and then shoot a few ends with them. That just doesn’t happen in football or basketball. It makes success in archery at the highest levels seem attainable.
What do you think about archery fashion?
Love it. Who doesn’t look like a superhero dressed for archery?