Giving It Her Best Shot The youngest member of the U.S. team, 14-year-old Denise Parker, will win hearts whether or not she wins a medal

Sept. 14, 1988
Sept. 14, 1988

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Sept. 14, 1988

Medal Picks

Giving It Her Best Shot The youngest member of the U.S. team, 14-year-old Denise Parker, will win hearts whether or not she wins a medal

IT SOUNDS LIKE THE STRUMMING OF RUBber bands accompanied by the
pitter-patter of raindrops. And it looks like . . . hmmm . . . it
looks as if you're going to need your binoculars.
Once the binoculars are raised, you see that this is archery,
which as a spectator sport is afflicted with a weakness even field
glasses cannot cure: It's impossible to focus on archer and target at
the same time. All the drama takes place 30 to 70 meters from the
athlete, at the row of targets with rings of white, black, blue, and
red and with bright gold centers. But where the archers stand, the
scene is as serene as a garden party. The athletes amble among lawn
chairs and beach umbrellas, soliciting advice from coaches, or they
sit and chat quietly with the other competitors. Periodically they
get up to shoot an end (three or six arrows, depending on the
All this makes the sport rather off-putting for the uninitiated.
The archers know it, of course, but don't seem to care much. So you
can imagine their surprise a year or so ago when the media suddenly
started crashing their sedate tea parties, searching for a
sweet-looking teenager from South Jordan, Utah, named Denise Parker.
At 14, Parker will be the youngest American archer ever to compete in
the Games. And she is probably the closest thing to a potential
medalist in Seoul on the U.S. women's team.
Last year, Parker won the Indoor National Championships in the
junior division with scores that broke all divisional records, and
even the marks of the open champion. Then she took the gold in the
Pan Am Games, beating women close to twice her age. This year, she
won the women's indoor nationals. But her greatest feat came at the
Championship of the Americas trials in Harrisonburg, Va., in May,
where she shot a 1,301 to become the first U.S. woman to break 1,300
in a FITA (the acronym for the international archery federation,
which also in archery parlance is what a single round is called).
That's six points above the score shot by the U.S.'s Luann Ryon when
she won the gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. Parker, however, is
among the first to point out that her 1,301 is still 37 points under
the current world record, set by Kim Su Nyung of South Korea.
But ignore the pesky details. The U.S. is always on the lookout
for an Olympic sweetheart, and Denise Parker is an obvious candidate.
She has already been on television with Johnny Carson and Wil
Shriner. Last year, as a candidate for the U.S. Olympic Committee's
Woman Athlete of the Year, she met President Reagan, whom she
describes as ''a boss type,'' though she makes allowances for the
fact that ''he's kind of old.'' She has even made her mark as an
international media personality, having been featured on the Japanese
television show Super Kids last year. So at least some of the world
now knows that Parker has a subtle smile, upswept bangs and a breezy
self-confidence that lends charm to her fierce desire to win.
That desire was ignited just four years ago when her stepfather,
Earl Parker, a printer, introduced Denise to archery. Earl's hope was
that, when Denise was old enough, she would go bow hunting with him
and her mother, Valerie. Instead, Parker has become obsessed with
other game. That became clear when she lost her first archery
tournament to another 10-year-old, a boy.
''We were going fishing the weekend after the tournament, and
Denise said, 'Do we have to go fishing? I want to beat that boy,' ''
says Earl. All week she shot arrows through the open garage door at a
target in the backyard, and at the end of the week, in the Utah state
championships, she defeated her nemesis. ''I just didn't like him
beating me -- especially a boy,'' says Parker.
She is just as intent on winning now. She runs three to four miles
four days a week, does aerobics for an hour twice a week, performs
martial arts exercises twice a day and shoots at least 100 arrows
five times a week. And each time she shoots, the routine is exactly
the same.
First she takes a deep breath. Then she puts the tip of the bow on
her right big toe (she shoots left-handed) and nocks the arrow.
While drawing the bow, she visualizes the arrow going into the
target. The string presses against her nose and chin. Her eyes
narrow. When the clicker on her bow signals that she's at full draw,
she doesn't hesitate. Her left hand goes limp. Boing. Thwack!
Parker shoots three arrows before some archers release one. ''I
don't stay that long on the line,'' she says, vastly understating the
There's something mildly insolent about a kid shooting so well
without agony. If anything, archery should be difficult for Parker,
because she's so tiny. Weighing a mere 105 pounds, she uses a bow
with a pull of only 31 pounds. That's five fewer pounds than most of
her rivals draw. Which means her arrows are shot with less force,
travel slower, arc more and give the wind more time to play with
So when the arrows home in on the gold circle, after arcing lazily
through the air, they seem to thumb their noses at her elders'
straighter, more powerful shots. Watching Parker shoot brings to mind
the words of the Zen master, quoted in Eugen Herrigel's Zen in the
Art of Archery, who said that when a child lets go of the bowstring
''there is not the slightest jerk. Do you know why? Because a child
doesn't think.''
That's not meant as an insult. ''The best archers in the world
don't think,'' says Parker's personal coach, Tim Strickland, current
national professional champion. ''They know how to anchor their
conscious minds so the subconscious can excel.''
''She's a natural, and that's hard for people to accept,
especially for people who have really worked a long time on their
craft,'' says Christine McCartney, executive director of the National
Archery Association.
True enough. All the attention Parker receives does not sit well
with some of the archery people. U.S. Olympic women's coach Sheri
Rhodes insists that the other women on the team -- Melanie Skillman,
33, and Debra Ochs, 22 -- are neck and neck with the 14-year-old.
''Parker is not any better or worse than the rest of them,'' says
Rhodes. ''Everybody says Parker has the best chance at a medal, but
she's never been in a tournament like this ((the Olympics)). The
others have, and they might do better than anyone expects. Parker
doesn't stand out, but the depth of support that she's getting is
Parker might be a natural as McCartney contends, but Rhodes is
also correct in saying that she has received extraordinary support.
After she won the Pan Am Games last year, her hometown paper, the
Deseret News, set up a trust fund for her so she could travel and
hire Strickland, who runs an archery camp in Pine Bluff, Ark., as her
personal coach. There is also Keith Henschen, a sports psychologist
at the University of Utah, from whom Parker has learned
visualization, relaxation and concentration techniques. And of course
there's her family, who taught her goal-setting and PMA, or positive
mental attitude. Indeed, making goals and meeting them is the Parker
family's religion -- literally. The family -- Parker has two older
brothers and a stepsister -- belongs to the Church of Religious
Science, which is identified with TV evangelist Robert Schuller. ''We
believe that there is a force in the world that you can tap into --
an intelligent thing, a power, a god -- to achieve the things you set
your mind to,'' says Valerie.
There is no mistaking the focus of the Parker family. ''Our whole
life is archery,'' says Valerie. While other families squabble over
who will do the dishes, the Parkers shoot arrows to decide. ''That's
why my dad has dishpan hands,'' says Parker. Other families may sit
and watch TV together, but, says Valerie, ''we'll sit on the couch
together and do visualization.''
Where other families keep grocery lists on the refrigerator door,
Parker has posted a list of her goals. Right now, there is one
short-term objective on the list that she has not yet met -- making
the finals in the Olympics. And there is one goal that is
conspicuously missing: winning the gold medal.
After all the fuss and preparation, no one -- not her coach, not
her parents, not even Parker herself -- believes that winning the
gold medal in Seoul is a realistic goal. Even a silver is unlikely.
As for a bronze, there's but a glimmer of hope.
So it's rash to predict that Denise Parker will win an Olympic
medal in '88, though '92 might be another matter altogether. But, as
Parker has repeatedly shown, you can hit a target best when you don't
think about it.

This is an article from the Sept. 14, 1988 issue