Day 3. The final blast. They’ve moved me from the rodeo shed to one of the other huge halls upstairs, and I have three new target mates. The non-championship archers are split into divisions called ‘flights’. You can win some money if you finish at the top of your flight. As we’ve been categorised by standard so far, there’s an air of slight resignation down our wing. I’m in with people who are as good as me, i.e. people who are having a slightly bad day at the office. On the other side of the hall, a remarkable three Olympic gold medalists are lining up to shoot (Jay Barrs, Simon Fairweather and JC Holgado).
But on my target, there is Bob (I’ll call him Bob). Bob looks to be mid-40s and heavyset. Bob spends the entire session complaining about how bad he’s shooting, how wrong everything is going and so on – coupling it with ever-increasing estimates of his own ability. “Normally I shoot like 250…” “…at home I can do 270…” “my best is like 280.” Bob ends up shooting 206. Bob is accompanied by a wife or girlfriend who is absolutely lit up at 12.30 in the afternoon and calls his (and mine, and everyone else’s) scores out with elan, cocktail in one hand, binoculars in the other. “You pounded that last one honey!”
Bob complains to me between literally every end. “I don’t know what’s happening today.” “Right now I just want to throw the bow down the range?” Everything is phrased somewhere between a question and a statement. I want to strangle him, but am polite enough to recommend he takes a walk around the block (or whatever) between ends. He blurts out that he’s only had one drink today at some point. “What’s that drink with wine and orange juice? “Sangria?”. “Nah, not that.”
There is Charlie. (I’ll call him Charlie). In his thirties. Looks like a decent guy with decent taste in music. Charlie is having a terrible time shooting, but thankfully expresses it non-verbally. You’ve seen Charlie before. The shake of the head. The mouthed ‘f**k’. The flashes of anger and self-loathing. The leaning up against the wall and staring into the middle distance. At one point, I’m pretty sure he went and actually banged his head on the wall. Charlie is like me and (probably) you. Charlie came to Vegas thinking he was going to shoot somewhere near his best, and take home a proud memory. Charlie is making a few minor errors and dropping arrows all over the face. I see myself in Charlie.
The last of us (I’ll call her Alice) is a blonde student lady barebow who is having an incredibly awesome day. She skips to the target between ends. She dances waiting for her turn to shoot. She says goshdarnit and similar folksy stuff all the time. Alice appears to be on a manic upswing, and is on form too. Needless to say, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of archery outshoots us all, slightly morose sighted recurves, by a couple of points. It’s carnage. Bob stares at the final target faces and says “I’ve been beaten by a barebow”, like it’s the worst thing that has ever happened to him. (I am a member of a club with some of the best barebowers in the UK and have been beaten by them on numerous occasions, so I am less surprised).
Me? I have a day not dissimilar to yesterday, i.e. mixed to crap. Some great arrows and some minor errors which I don’t have time to correct. A brief practice the day before was not enough. I desperately wish my coach was here. It’s probably something dumb and correctable. I finish on a stinking 204. You could class the weekend as a first day at around my best, and two following days somewhat below it. It’s more frustrating because it’s almost pretty good. It’s almost 260-level. Almost. But not. I’m feeling a lot more cheerful about it though. Perhaps because it’s done, and I can start work on getting better.
My Vegas is over. All our Vegas-es are over. Charlie looks like someone has shot his dog. I gently say to him, “I guess you were also expecting something better, huh?” He winces, and says: “Yeah, but you know what they say. Archery happens.”
You can’t see the horses on TV. Just a few yards from the arena where the pro compounds are competing for the biggest cash prize in archery, there’s a few beautiful horses munching hay. The South Point apparently has stabling room for up to 2000 (they usually do some of the biggest equestrian events in the USA here).
The Vegas Shoot championship showdown is the big show at the end. The audience start grabbing the best seats a few hours beforehand, and the noise level gradually ratchets up. It looks like there’s a couple of thousand people here.
In the darkness at the rear of the archery arena, the eight men who shot clean – a perfect 300, every day – line up along with the ‘lucky dog’, one of the many more guys who shot 899 and came through a shoot-off to grab the last place available. They are all guys (although Tanja Jensen shot 900 last year). There’s a lot of tension on faces, a lot of fear. Over the three days to get here, you can concentrate and pretend that you’re practicing. Follow your process. It’s harder to prepare for this.
This year, the lucky dog is Christopher Perkins of Canada, who manages to look more determined, and less nervous, than the eight men in front of him. They’re introduced one by one, and take their spots. After just one end that sees Pagnioni take an early bath, the competition switches from ‘Vegas scoring’ – with the big ten counting as ten points, to championship scoring, where only the inner X ring will do. This is to speed things up.
Three arrows, and it must be thirty points. The next end sees six of the remaining eight men fall, leaving just Bob Eyler and the lucky dog Chris Perkins. But Perkins has an extra challenge – he cannot place, he can only win or lose. It’s a rough rule, that reinforces what the Vegas championship is all about; the mark of absolute perfection. If you’re gonna play with the big boys, you’d better stand up to them.
After a third place shootoff that sees Kris Schaff edge out Paul Tedford, Perkins and Eyler line up again. Both drill the X ring on their first, but Perkins’s third shot drifts low – way low, by Vegas standards. There’s a collective sigh in the room. The audience know the game is up as long as Eyler can deliver the final X, and he does. In a little over five ends of shooting, we have a winner. Bob Eyler raises his hands. It’s done. He takes the $52,000 first prize. Chris Perkins has to leave with nothing (ok, ninth place and a very small cheque). It seems harsh. It is.
Compared to many archery finals, it’s pure theatre, of course. This is a show town, and the increasing popularity of the shoot as a broadcast is because it delivers drama and surprise at every turn. The Vegas Shoot has an inbuilt drama, a pressure cooker tension that is helped along by the structure of the shoot, with the constant pauses to change faces, and the TV, the lights and the commentary. It’s great stuff. By the end, I’m convinced it’s what the sport needs more of.
The trade show is packed away, the halls gradually empty, bow cases are rolled to the parking lot past tinkling slot machines, and Sunday finishes with food and cocktails and pai gow and cocktails and blackjack (and more cocktails and more blackjack). It’s been incredible, really. It’s not like anything else on earth. Where else can you see a recent Olympic gold medalist drop a few hundred at roulette at three in the morning? I’m itching to come back next year already.
I want another go.
Special thanks to Jodi Ess, all the WA comms team, and all my target mates.