On Target For The Games

He may not look like an athlete, but archer Rick McKinney is a good bet for Olympic gold
October 09, 1983

One has to transcend technique so that the art becomes an "artless art" growing out of the Unconsciousness.
—DAISETZ T. SUZUKI

From the introduction to Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel

When Rick McKinney walks down the street there is nothing about him to suggest that a year from today his proudest possession may well be a golden disk bearing the legend of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. At 5'7" and 120 pounds, he won't be slam-dunking basketballs or intimidating East Europeans in water polo. And he certainly doesn't have the taut vitality of a gymnast or a boxer. McKinney seems to be just a small, gentle person with a soft look in his brown eyes, a slighter, darker version of marathoner Bill Rodgers, with a thick, ruddy beard. In fact, he's just about the best archer in the world. "You'd make a great distance runner." McKinney was told recently. "But I've got no endurance," he replied.

His endurance may be a matter for debate, but his skill in his sport is not. Last August in Long Beach, Calif., McKinney won his sixth national archery championship, his fifth in a row, and next month he returns to Long Beach seeking to regain the world championship. Modesty aside, he will be the odds-on favorite there, and quite probably at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as well. Though McKinney dismisses endurance as part of his mastery, he is very specific about the qualities that do set him apart from his competitors.

"Anyone can buy the equipment I use," McKinney says, although it would require $1,500 to do so, "but only the person with the strongest mind can make it really work.

"I've made a target out of cardboard, and sometimes I stare at it for hours," he says. "I think mean, vicious thoughts: 'I'm going to kill that guy....' Or just positive thoughts: 'I'm going to shoot perfect scores....' I feel the muscles tense in my shoulders and back. I actually see the arrow leaving the bow and going to the center of the target. It develops fantastic confidence and concentration.

"But I only shoot real arrows twice a week, 10 to 20 each time. I don't practice for hours. I did that long enough.

"And I run—three miles."

"Every day?"

"No, three miles a week, but only when I'm in serious training. I don't want my heartbeat getting too slow. I want a soft pump, a nice, soft pump. My pulse is 68 now. Much lower than that and your heart pumps so hard that it can affect your aim."

The 29-year-old McKinney, a senior phys ed major at Arizona State, has none of the bodily preoccupations we expect of Olympic-class athletes. In an age of high-performance nostrums such as bee pollen and spirulina, of the twin taboos—sugar and fat—he rises each morning to his favorite breakfast of chocolate-chip cookies and water; he sings the praises of "the basic four food groups" contained in a Big Mac, shake, fries and a lemon tart; and while competing he chain-sips Pepsi-Cola, claiming "The bicarbonate settles my stomach." He says, surprisingly, "I don't want too much strength in my arms. If I start using them a lot when I shoot, I lose the fine control over my shot." Successful archers mainly use their back and shoulder muscles; McKinney strengthens his with weights, but only light ones, and even that minimal exertion is rare among archers.

His chief rival is fellow ectomorph Darrell Pace of Hamilton, Ohio, a 5'11" 140-pounder. The 26-year-old Pace has never touched a weight or done any running. But he has won five national championships and was the Olympic gold medalist in 1976 at Montreal, where McKinney was fourth.

The world has learned about archery from Robin Hood and Errol Flynn, coming to expect high drama in the process. But there is none of that in competition target shooting; instead, there are subtleties and intrigue, all but hidden to casual observers, of which there are few.

Some 150 archers were always on the shooting line at the nationals in Long Beach, beside a perfect greensward that will be the Olympic archery venue next summer, as well as the site of this month's world championships. But no applause disturbed the near silence that enveloped them. The only sounds were the gentle twang of releasing bowstrings and the soft and distant popping of arrows piercing targets.

Now the four-day competition was half over. The second of two identical rounds was under way—36 arrows at each of four distances, the first an imposing 90 meters. To hit the nine-and 10-point center circle at that distance seemed a stroke of the wildest good fortune, but McKinney was hitting it often, and leading the competition. Pace was only eight points back, and the intrigue was building. They were in a foursome, shooting two at a time, and as the targets grew more crowded with arrows the archers would raise their telescopes or binoculars to search for their color-coded arrow nocks. After six shots apiece, the archers would march to their targets, one to call the scores, one to put them on the board, two to keep the records.

One of those shooting with McKinney and Pace was Hiroshi Yamamoto of Japan. Ineligible to win the nationals, he was at Long Beach for practice, but was close behind McKinney and Pace, and they wanted more than just to win. They wanted the tournament's best score. So did Yamamoto. He and McKinney were leading off together, but McKinney would always let Yamamoto start shooting first. It was afternoon now, and the wind had blown up; McKinney would watch Yamamoto's arrows "lie in the wind," as he put it later. "From behind, in still air, they look like a dot. But in the wind the back ends kick over. You can read the wind that way, which helps you to adjust your aim." Yamamoto seemed afraid to deprive McKinney of this advantage by waiting him out. There is a 2½-minute time limit for each three shots, and McKinney was much the faster shooter of the two. Finally, when Yamamoto said, "You go first," McKinney relented. It seemed to be a matter of sportsmanship.

The last day began and McKinney led Pace by 22 points, but that morning, at 50 meters, something curious was happening. As one official put it, "McKinney is going down the tubes." Pace gained six points in only 12 shots, and then he gestured toward the target.

"He's playing a little game," McKinney whispered. "He's requesting a new target face. That can be a psychological disadvantage, since I'm shooting first. When the center circle is broken up with holes, you can find a little dark area to aim at. But when it's nearly empty...."

Toward the end of the 50-meter round, in three arrows McKinney shot a perfect 10 and then two nines. Pace countered with two 10s and a nine; on his last two arrows he shot one 10 and then another 10 that split the first arrow down the middle, a rare "Robin Hood." It seemed to be a symbol of his ascendancy and of McKinney's collapse. Pace had gained 12 points with only 36 arrows, and he trailed by 10 now. Still to be shot was the 30-meter competition, and Pace held the world record at that distance, with 356 points of a perfect 360.

Later, McKinney would say of that 50-meter round, "My mind was breaking down. Darrell was in total command."

It was a place where McKinney had been before. As he recalls, "My archery career began so badly that just about everyone told me to pick another sport." He has told the story a hundred times, of his Muncie, Ind. boyhood, how his father bought a used 1953 Ford pickup truck and found, in the back, a target-shooting bow. Paul McKinney started shooting in tournaments and at target ranges, and, one by one, he began taking his five sons along. Rick, 10 at the time, was the youngest, so he got to go last. His father and his siblings would hover around him at a range, saying things like "Hold your bow straight," or "Let go—now." His typical score was, maybe, 68, and perfection is 300. He was happy if the arrow merely went in the right direction. Finally, after practicing for five months, he entered a tournament, but his arrows kept landing on the ground in front of the target, so, impatiently, he shot the rest of them any which way. His father grabbed his bow and threatened that if he did it again, he would have to "go and stay in the car."

In eighth grade, as a 110-pound pole vaulter, McKinney loved "the thrill of going up in the air, never knowing how high," but he was never to go higher than 12'6". And he also loved "that perfect feeling" in archery, "becoming part of the bow and arrow, getting that tingling sensation in my arms and shoulders." He decided that his future was with archery. He practiced for three to six hours every day, and in 1973 took fifth place at the world championship trials. Only the top four archers qualified, and McKinney lost out on his final shot, a six, to Pace—the sport's greatest rivalry had begun. McKinney couldn't have known that then. He says, "For a while there I never wanted to see another bow."

He seemed a little bit lost. Out of high school with no immediate plans for college, he worked for six months at a Burger Man restaurant, for one year in a grocery-store produce section and for another as a drill-press operator. And all the while he was finishing second to Pace in tournaments. Finally, a third at the 1976 nationals—Pace won again—convinced McKinney, as he says now, that "my illustrious career was over. I figured, 'That's it. I'm not getting any better.' "

He did qualify for the 1977 worlds but felt he had no chance to win. So he just went to enjoy himself, strangely free of stresses and anxieties—and he won. Pace finished fourth and, in national competition, more often than not, that's how it has been ever since.

McKinney's progress is a tribute to his skills and determination, but his housemate is a big plus, too. Her name is Sheri Rhodes; she is a quiet, attractive 28-year-old and the head archery coach at Arizona State. McKinney met her in July of 1979 at the National Sports Festival. He had decided that he wanted a college education, and a full-tuition archery scholarship happened to be available at ASU. He drove out from Indiana in his Jeep the next January, and he and Rhodes have been together ever since.

She said nothing about his shooting form until that September, and then only that he'd been dropping his bow arm at the time of release. It wasn't a serious flaw, she assured him, but it could be eliminated. "I worked it out," McKinney says. "My form is much more solid now."

Rhodes and McKinney live in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale in a 10-year-old white stucco town house whose appurtenances include three cats, Cleo, Sheba and Freckles; the obligatory Phoenix ceiling fans; a 7-foot-tall, $1,600 grandfather clock; and a Samurai war helmet, Maori war machete, Benedictine bowl, Polish lead-crystal vase, kachina doll, kangaroo-skin wall hanging and various other awards and artifacts from the six continents on which McKinney has competed. Their kitchen is amply stocked with his dietary specialties—cookies and ice water, corn chips, hot sauce and bean dip, and dry-roasted peanuts. And outside, black widow spiders—the curse of a wet winter—hide in the tool shed and in the shadows around McKinney's Kawasaki 750 motorcycle, while the Arizona sun beats mercilessly down, turning a rarely used antique 1940 Plymouth into a steel sauna.

McKinney likes to quote a Zen master in the Herrigel book: " 'Whoever makes good progress in the beginning has all the more difficulties later on.'

"It took me 10 years to reach the top," he says, "but I learned what I was doing. If it had gone easily for me at the start, when I finally ran into problems I wouldn't have known how to solve them. I'd be too deeply into my habits."

On that last afternoon at Long Beach, McKinney was saying, "Pace gave me five years of anguish, but he motivated me by beating me. He was always one step ahead. I'd shoot an awesome six arrows, and he'd be one better. And he always had a little grin on his face."

Pace still had the grin, but it didn't last. McKinney had said, "The first six arrows at 30 meters will be the most important of the tournament." Then he shot a 58; Pace could only manage 55, and he trailed by 13. Pace's comeback had started too late. He stood with his head down for a long time. He was 12 points into the second set of six when the national championship ended.

A 72-year-old retired engineer named Dimitri Erdely came by. He has competed in and coached archery for more than three decades, and he has known all the great champions in that time. "A group of doctors, engineers, physiologists and psychologists has been trying to find out what qualities make a great archer," said Erdely. "But they can't seem to come to any conclusions. In my opinion, it's a combination of mental balance, endurance and determination, especially determination. An archer must be mentally prepared to win before he can actually win. That's Rick McKinney."

Now he unrolled a fresh target face, and he handed it to McKinney, who had spoken so slightingly of his own endurance, for an autograph.

"Right here?" McKinney asked, pointing to the center circle.

"Yes," Erdely said. "That's where you belong."

TWO PHOTOSThis month McKinney will return to Long Beach, with his sights on the world title. PHOTOMeticulous about his equipment, McKinney straightens one of his customized arrows. PHOTOScoring a round, McKinney examines the target face carefully. PHOTORhodes has improved McKinney's form, but not his diet. ILLUSTRATION

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)