Archery, Val Aten explained, is a simple sport.
For indoor archers who shoot with a modern compound bow, like Aten, there are only four variables.
There’s the bow. The arrow. The target, set 50 meters away down the range. But the most important is the archer’s mind.
“You have to do the exact same thing over and over, and even the slightest little thing can change it,” she said.
No female college archer in the country was as good at doing the same thing over and over as she was in March when she won the National Field Archery Association freestyle championship in Cincinnati. She scored 112 points, seven points better than her closest competitor.
After, the mechanical engineering sophomore from Cadillac said she felt “in the zone” that day.
“I don’t think about anything,” Aten said. “I’m just like, ‘Oh, man, I can’t miss the middle today.’ You pull back and everything is just fluid.”
Aten began shooting archery at age 9. She is the fifth of eight children, and her father Ed led the family in the Northern Michigan tradition of rifle hunting every season — that’s where Aten got the urge to aim and shoot.
“To fill the freezer, you gotta go out and hunt,” she said.
Ed initially signed up only his sons for the archery program at the local 4-H club. But Aten, who was so driven as a young girl that she trained herself to lose a speech impediment in order to avoid speech therapy, decided she’d better come along, too. She used her older brother Joe’s bow.
“The first day she picked her bow up, it was unbelievable,” Ed said.
Soon, Aten was better than all the boys, not just in her family, but in her town. Her family drove far and wide looking for anyone capable of outshooting their daughter. They didn’t find them in Cadillac. They didn’t find them in the biggest state tournaments in Battle Creek, Michigan. When Aten was in high school, Ed said he realized those people would be hard to find anywhere.
When it came time to pick a college, both the University of Michigan and Michigan Tech offered Aten full academic rides into their engineering programs. But neither school has an archery program.
So Aten chose to pay her way to come to Michigan State and shoot for coach Glen Bennett’s team. The MSU archery program has produced 36 All-Americans in his eleven years at the school, one of the highest rates in the country.
“You shoot, but you can’t always see what you’re doing. (Bennett) is an extra set of eyes,” Aten said.
Bennett said archery is only 5% physical, but the mental difference is where Aten has separated herself.
“I’ve seen people just totally fold up and throw their bows and quit archery period,” Bennett said. “That’s the way it goes. Some people can handle it, some people can’t handle it.”
For Ed, who only hunts with rifles and says he’s only shot a bow three times in his life, seeing Aten hit the target is his greatest pride.
He said when he watches her shoot, he no longer looks at the target to tell how well she’s doing.
“(When archers are young), we’re looking through goggles or spot-scopes to tell them the score, so they always turn back towards the parents,” Ed said. “But then, the older they get, they don’t need us around. ... At about 13 or so, they’re doing things on their own, so they don’t turn around. So, you just watch their body language or their bow and you can tell.”
Aten recalled another tournament last year in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that was televised and ended with a one-on-one matchup against Alexis Ruiz, a world championship medalist from Arizona.
“They block all the lights out and it’s just you and your opponent 1-on-1, and there’s thousands of people watching at home and in the stands,” she said. “I got off, I didn’t remember anything. You just get in the zone and you block everything out, I didn’t even know if I had won or not. I had to come off and I was like, ‘what happened?’”
So what happened?
She had scored three points below the maximum, defeating Ruiz, to win the championship.
Her next goal is to represent her country and qualify for the U.S. Archery team, where she would team up with archers like Ruiz.
“It’d be awesome,” her father said. “And I know she can do it.”
After all, Val Aten has never had much problem hitting her targets.