She started at the top

Through two unprecedented years, Nancy Vonderheide has been a champion who could not lose. Now she faces the ultimate test
August 04, 1963

When NancyVonderheide took up archery, she entered a field in which violent ups and downsare the norm of a successful career. Nancy promptly rebelled. She regarded eachtournament that she won as a challenge to win the next one as well, and with aconsistency never before found in this ancient sport, she went precisely fromone championship to another, like a man stepping on stones to cross a shallowstream, until she had accumulated more titles than any other woman archer.

A pretty,honey-blonde girl, straight and slender and engagingly matter-of-fact abouteverything except target shooting with a bow and arrow, Nancy (See cover) wasfirst in 16 consecutive tournaments, a record not only unprecedented butincredible. In the inherently unstable world of tournament shooting, herperformance gave archery its one major subject for discussion: When would NancyVonderheide lose?

The discussionbegan two years ago during the magnificent pageantry of a world championship inOslo. The unknown girl from Ohio not only won the title in her first majortournament, she also set two world records. Last week the discussion as to whenNancy would be beaten reached its peak as she took her place with two otherwomen contenders on the American team at the 22nd world championship tournamentat Helsinki. The awed authorities of archery, studying her scores since Oslo,readily conceded that there was no one at Helsinki with a record as good ashers.

Nancy hardlyshared the universal confidence in her invincibility. Looking ahead to thehardest test of them all, she said, "I can't go on winning forever. But Ican go on working toward staying near the top."

Nancy is a slowshooter, and between arrows she stands in contemplative silence—head bowed,eyes closed—analyzing her own performance.

Her audiencesuffers with her. Nancy is the kind of champion everyone cheers. She is thebright-faced, freshly scrubbed girl next door. She is happiest in flat shoesand a wraparound skirt. (But, armed with a low-cut gown and with her crown ofnaturally golden hair piled high on her head, Nancy can knock a male just asdead as she could with an arrow.) She would rather eat a hamburger at adrive-in (provided they serve good chocolate milk) than a steak at"21." Now that she is a celebrity, "21" has become familiar,but she still stares wide-eyed at all the famous people she recognizes there.The fact that people sometimes recognize her as a celebrity is to NancyVonderheide a source of awe.

After she won theworld championship at Oslo, her picture was in newspapers and magazines allover the world. She was a guest on television shows, was awarded the key toCincinnati, signed autographs, received the congratulations of heads of stateand was idolized by children at playgrounds. Nancy enjoys the kind of fame thatpeople seem to reserve solely for starlets and sports figures. Since shecombines the best characteristics of both, the public goodwill that follows heris of a special quality. When she ponders for a long time between shots, whenher fate in a tournament hangs in the balance, her fans wait in devout silencefor her victory. Eight priests once appeared at a tournament to cheer her on,and an entire orphanage is united in prayers for her success.

Unlike mostathletes, Nancy did not grow up on playing fields. About the only sport sheengaged in prior to archery was 10¢-a-throw baseball at an amusement park inher native Cincinnati—and nobody scouted her for the Reds. Her school years,first at St. Francis de Sales and then at Withrow High, were singularly devoidof any exercise more energetic than weekly walks to the local movie. "Inthose days," Nancy recalls, "the idea of girls' sports in Catholicschools was to make everybody put on high woolen socks and line up on abench."

Her parentsseparated when she was four years old. At an age when most girls are playinghouse, Nancy was scrubbing floors and cooking meals and trying to keep in orderthe makeshift home her mother provided for her and a younger sister, Carol. Thechief joys she remembers in her lonely childhood center around belovedgrandparents. Her grandfather was the caretaker at St. Aloysius Orphanage, andthe periods when for one reason or another she lived with her grandparents werethe happiest in her life. There were always children to play with at theorphanage and soft-spoken Sisters to offer wisdom. Although Nancy left home forgood when she finished high school, she never has really left the orphanage.She stops by almost every evening to fuss over her grandfather, now 75 and inhis fifth decade as caretaker. She chats with the nuns and looks in on thechildren, who swarm about her the minute she enters the big, iron gates. Fromthe smallest child to her grandfather, everybody at the orphanage followsNancy's performances, boasts of her successes, collects her clippings and rootsfor her in tournaments.

Her competitivedebut captured the imagination of people far less impressionable than theseeager supporters. Nancy worked for a legal firm where Marvin Kleinman, one ofthe partners, was an enthusiastic archer. A big man, 6 feet 3 and weighing 220pounds, Kleinman is smart, tough and successful. "Marvin's partner, BobJacobs, was swell to work for," Nancy recalls, "but Marvin was realserious. He used to scare me to death. I would get all jittery when I had tobring anything in for him to sign. Then Bob Jacobs ran for judge, and the wholeoffice campaigned for him. Toward the end, we were working 20-hour days,putting up posters and passing out campaign buttons. Marvin and I were throwntogether a lot because we were the only unmarried ones, but he still scaredme."

Just shoot afew

Marvin asked herto watch his archery practice at Winton Woods Park, north of Cincinnati. Thepark maintained a target range and also a field course—a series of animaltargets set at intervals in the woods to approximate actual bow-huntingsituations. Nancy dutifully trailed along, fighting off mosquitoes, whileMarvin tried the field course. But one session in the great outdoors was enoughfor her, and the next week she stayed behind at the target range, while Marvinset off alone stalking cardboard catamounts in the countryside. The archeryinstructor at Winton Woods Park was Jim Blackburn, a former Reds' pitcher.Blackburn suggested that Nancy shoot a few arrows while she waited. After sixmonths of Sunday shooting, Nancy entered a tournament. At the end of the firstday she was in third place. "I was so shocked that 1 tried too hard,"Nancy says. "I wound up in 10th place because I couldn't cope with thepressure. It isn't enough to be good in a sport. You have to know how to handlethe pressure that goes with being good."

She tried tolearn how to handle the pressure during a year of competition in minortournaments near Cincinnati and, for a beginner, her performance was creditablebut hardly spectacular. When she won a berth on the team that represented theU.S. at Oslo in 1961, there were mutterings that her qualifying victory was afreak or, more fairly, that it proved the weakness of selecting national teamson the basis of a single qualifying event, rather than on aggregate averages.In international championships 36 arrows are shot at 70 meters and 36 at 60meters on the first day. On the second day 36 arrows are shot at 50 meters and36 at 30. On the last two days the distances are repeated; a total of 72 arrowsa day for four days. By the second day, all eyes were on the honey-blonde fromOhio, and nobody ever again suggested that she had won her place on theAmerican team by anything but ability.

Nancy was nowchampion of the world, but nothing else. Having started at the top, she hadnever won any minor titles. So she systematically set about winningeverything—in reverse: the championship of Europe, of the U.S., of the Midwest,of the state of Ohio and so on down to local championships. In the meantime,Marvin had become her combination manager, trainer, coach, press agent, legaladviser, confidant, man Friday and best beau. (Their marriage is scheduled forthis winter.) He was a familiar figure whenever Nancy competed, hoveringseveral yards behind her on the line, studying her shots, her form and herscores.

Before eachtournament, big or little, everything that she did, every decision she made,was determined by how it might affect her shooting. Unable to sleep beforetournaments, she called Marvin three or four times during the night, talkingabout nothing in particular. She practiced eight hours every day during thefive-month tournament season. Her social life disappeared.

Her grandmotherhad died shortly after Nancy won the world championship, deepening her closerelationship with her grandfather. Since she knew all the children at St.Aloysius Orphanage and their small triumphs were catalogued in her mind, eachvisit was an occasion; the time and understanding she gave the childrenendeared her to the priests and nuns. Sisters Mary Hauneretta and MaryHermaline and Mary de Pazzi, who remember Nancy as a little girl, sittingalongside the others at the long orphanage dining table or playing in the big,tree-shaded yard, were proud of Nancy's fame and prouder still that it changedher so little.

When Nancy wonthe world championship at Oslo, the seventh place fell to Victoria Cook, 29,whose career in archery is as casual as Nancy's is intense. The mother of a boyand girl and the wife of a Minneapolis equipment maintenance man, Mrs. Cooktook up archery because her husband was an ardent deer hunter with a bow andarrow. (She killed a 204-pound buck deer with a bow last year, the secondlargest taken by a woman archer in Minnesota.) When she went deer huntingdressed in an old Army fatigue uniform her husband started calling her Sam. Thenickname stuck, and Mrs. Cook is now called Sam by her friends and family, allarchery enthusiasts.

A race to thewire

When the 22ndworld championship tournament began last week, Sam Cook quietly piled up 535points on the first day, 12 more than Nancy Vonderheide. Scoring is from thecenter outward—10 and nine points for the gold center, eight and seven for thenext red ring, six and five for the blue, four and three for the black, and twoand one for the white outer circle. A difference of only 12 points means thatNancy and Mrs. Cook ended the day in the archery equivalent of a photo finish.When the third day's shooting was concluded, Nancy was ahead by one point, amicroscopic margin after 216 arrows, and in effect a dead heat. Nancy's scorewas 1,655 to Mrs. Cook's 1,654.

On the lastday—almost on the last arrows—Sam Cook answered the question of when NancyVonderheide would lose. Mrs. Cook won the tournament by a total score of 2,253points to Nancy's 2,196, bringing to an end Nancy's unbroken, record-breakingrun of 16 consecutive victories. "I don't know how I feel," said Mrs.Cook. "I wish my children could have been here."

As for Nancy, shehad known that the string had to snap eventually. Although she is too gallant acontender to be crushed by defeat, a new question arises: Will Nancy be able toreestablish her dominance of women's archery, or is Sam Cook here to stay? Inany case, for the children at St. Aloysius, Helsinki was a hard championship tolose.

PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)