It’s a brisk autumn day. The cool breeze blows against your neck, and dry leaves crunch beneath your feet as you mosey down a woodland trail. This isn’t just another hiking trip, and the goal isn’t to admire fall foliage. Every few yards you stop and stare down a foam 3-D target. Deer, coyotes, black bears and velociraptors – you never know what you might encounter at a 3-D shoot. But that’s only half the fun.
Sydney Sullenberger, 12, of Valrico, Florida, started shooting archery two years ago. She previously accompanied her mom on bowhunts, and her archery love grew from there, prompting her to hold her 10th birthday party at an archery range. “That experience opened the door to learn more about the sport,” Sullenberger said.
Soon after her birthday, Sullenberger began working with Coach Scott Barrett. And soon after that she traded in a couple of American Girl dolls to buy her first compound bow.
Target, 3-D, indoor or outdoor, if it’s archery, Sydney loves it. Still, 3-D and target archery are her favorites. “She’s 100 percent archery all the time,” Barrett said. “She’ll shoot every single day if she has the chance.”
Florida heat and afternoon showers are no match for Sullenberger. Her unwavering dedication shows in the competitive circuit, no matter the weather.
Sydney shot her first tournament, the Florida Archery Shooters Association (ASA) 3-D qualifier, in January 2015. “That was all it took for her to want to put an arrow in any target she could shoot,” Sydney’s mom, Allison, said.
Since then, Sydney has earned champion status on the state and national level, including “shooter of the year” recognition for the Florida Archery Association (FAA) and Florida ASA. Allison and Barrett say Sydney’s second-place finish at the 2016 ASA Metropolis Pro-Am and first-place finish at the 2016 U.S. National Target Championships are her greatest accomplishments so far.
“The goal Syd sets each season and before each tournament is to shoot her personal best and break any records along the way,” Allison said. To that end, Coach Barrett said Sydney is “rewriting the record books” in Florida. She shot a perfect 720 at the FAA FITA shoot in September. Although currently under official review, the record is a confirmed personal best for Sydney in the target-shooting circuit.
In addition to shooting standard targets – think multi-colored targets like in Olympic archery – Sydney enjoys 3-D archery because it reminds her of bowhunting. Further, the terrain on each 3-D course offers unique challenges, she said.
In some competitions, Sydney shoots known distances between each 3-D target and the shooting line. But in competitions where distances aren’t known, Sydney uses her unaided eye – no binoculars or rangefinders allowed – to estimate the target’s distance and make accurate shots. Although she finds it nerve-wracking, Sydney also considers it fun.
“I like the challenge of shooting unknown distances because it’s the most realistic to actual hunting,” she said. How so? Although bowhunters can use a rangefinder to determine a deer’s distance, the extra movements risk spooking the animal. Bowhunters must often estimate the shooting distance – as with 3-D targets – to determine if they can make an ethical shot.
Part of learning to shoot 3-D archery is learning the animals and where to aim the shots, Barrett said. Each target ring is worth 8 to 12 points from the outer to inner ring. Shooters must also account for wind, limbs, angles, uneven terrain, varying elevations and other factors that make targets look closer than they appear.
“The strategy is amazing, especially for a 12-year-old to understand what to do,” Barrett said. “Sydney does a great job of understanding what needs to be done.”
Performing well at 3-D shoots requires Sydney to hone her shot process and make small changes gradually. Even in known-distance competitions, Barrett and Allison encourage Sydney to estimate each target’s distance before confirming it with her rangefinder. To master her shooting technique, Sydney watches World Archery YouTube videos after practice, and works with Barrett to adapt to small techniques over time, such as her focus.
“It’s not just about shooting the bow,” Barrett said. “It’s making sure you practice correctly.”
To those wanting to try 3-D archery, Sydney says don’t get discouraged. Instead, focus on making good shots. For parents, Allison preaches patience and constant support.
“Take them to practice and find a program or archery shop where they can shoot,” she said. “Don’t worry about anyone else’s scores. Just (help them) be better than they were yesterday.
“Syd has proven to me that she has the discipline and determination to take her shooting to the next level,” Allison said. “When she first picked up the bow in May 2014, her goal was to hunt. The minimum draw weight was around 36 pounds. She practiced a couple of times a week, and was determined to reach the qualifying draw weight.” Sydney now shoots a compound bow set at 50 pounds.
Sydney’s archery goals include bowhunting for her own meat, continuing 3-D and target archery competition, and breaking a few of her own records.
For those wanting to try archery, Barrett recommends finding a good coach. “Archery is a great sport,” he said. “You don’t have to be a physical powerhouse or have incredible physical abilities. … I’d recommend it to anybody. Pick up a bow, find someone to help you out a bit, and enjoy it.”