Savannah Vanderwier holds her hands less than two feet apart vertically.
“I was shooting the tiniest little bow – a little-bitty pink bow – and so these boys had their big hunting bows and I would beat them,” Savannah said. “Man, it drove them crazy.”
A lot has changed since Savannah was 10 and frustrating her male competitors in the Pecos County 4-H archery program.
Now 18, the Sheffield resident will be heading to Italy in September as a member of the USA Archery Junior National team competing in the World Archery Field Championships Sept. 4-9 in Corsica.
Savannah didn’t grow up focused on archery. She only started archery because she and one of her five younger sisters, Skylar, were bored and decided to tag along with their father, Andy, as he started teaching archery with the 4-H program.
“I loved it,” she said.
Yet, there was a time when Savannah almost quit archery.
“I kept on shooting, but I almost quit,” she said. “I thought that (4-H competition) was all there was – that there was nowhere else to go with it. At a state event, a coach told my dad about USA Archery.”
Just two years ago Savannah made the junior team – meant for ages 18-20 – as a 16-year-old. She won a silver medal in compound bow at the world championship in Ireland.
The path to an international competition is rigorous. At the nationals held earlier this summer in Washington State, Savannah had to be among the top eight finishers in nationals in order to qualify for the trials round, where the top three finishers advance to the U.S. team at the international competition.
Savannah took second to secure her spot.
Field archery is a different competition than one sees in the Olympics. Olympians used a recurve bow – where the bow curves back toward the archer at the ends – to attempt to hit a 10-ring, 48.035-inch target placed about 230 feet away.
In a field competition, athletes use a compound box – distinctive by its uses of cables and pulleys, to bend the limbs. Field competitors also face four different size targets ranging from about 8 inches to nearly 32 inches that are placed at different distances over terrain that must walked. The targets have six rings, with a bull’s eye worth six points and an outer-ring hit worth one. Each target is sot at three times, making 18 points the best score with three bull’s eyes.
There has been a measure of payback at the 4-H archery meetings as Savannah is sometimes challenged to use a recurve bow.
“It’s a big deal for the kids to compete against and world-class archer,” Andy said. “It is an entirely different type of bow, which she does not shoot as well. So, the kids sometimes beat her – and she is trying to win. They get to say they beat Savannah.”
Savannah is competitive but said the competitions have allowed her to make friends around the globe.
“When you are on the field competing, you are trying to win,” Savannah said. “But it is still friendly. Everybody likes each other.”
During the conversations away from the competition, Savannah finds herself trying to explain to people from around the about a town of 250 that people in Pecos County even have trouble finding, much less knowing it even exists.
“We’re like Radiator Springs in (the movie) Cars – we were great until the interstate was built,” Savannah said.
Describing West Texas can be a challenge, too.
“I tell them it’s desert and they think sand,” she said. “They are surprised when I tell them that we have to drive two hours to do major shopping.”
The family even hosted for a visit an archer from Sweden whom Savannah competed against.
Savannah practices upwards of 16-20 hours per week.
“Improving strength stability and the mental game is the biggest challenge,” she said. “Once you get the basics of archery and your form, you have to work on doing the same thing every time – almost like a robot. If you don’t, you won’t be as accurate.”
Her mother, Mary Beth, said she was surprised to see some people struggle under the pressure of competition.
“It is amazing,” Mary Beth said. “Some kids are really good – phenomenal archers – but they get under pressure situation they fall apart. The biggest thing is the mental game.”
Her father remains her coach, but she has benefitted from tips from other coaches – “nuggets” as Andy call them.
“At this level, if you increase two points over a season it is a big thing,” Savannah said.
Savannah is homeschooled along with her sisters. She is looking into pursuing a degree in digital photography and film at Grand Canyon University after she completes high school.
But she wants to go as far as she can with archery before she retires from competitive archery.
“There is a Pro series in Europe,” Savannah said. “That is the dream before I quit, before I’m done. You have to be invited. So, you have to be good enough to be noticed.”