By Philomena Nevada, 12th grade, Mater Dei Academy
Whenever you dedicate so much of yourself and your time to something, it’s bound to change you and your life.
I felt that most surely on a Friday morning in Omaha, Nebraska. The sun was just barely starting to slide softly into the sky, permeating the thick cold haze of morning with a pale light that lit up the steeple of the church and the roofs of my school. I pulled my denim jacket closer around me to keep out the chill. My archery teammates were claiming their seats in the two passenger vans we were taking on an almost thirteen hour trip to Louisville, Kentucky. We had packed away all our gear into a truck the night before. Our school, Mater Dei Academy, was going to compete against 191 other schools from across the United States in the 2015 National competition for the Archery in the Schools Program. That was on Saturday.
“Did you know that they have an archery team?” I looked over at my mom. Maybe I could see myself at that school.
We made our rounds of goodbyes. There weren’t that many- we were twenty-two high school kids out of forty-five. Three grade-schoolers would make the journey with us. I made my way into the church to say a last goodbye.
They practiced in the basement of the church.
I tried to hide my disappointment. It seemed- well, not very competitive. I glanced up at the row of bows on the walls. State champs five years running? There was also a trophy display case in the corner and an Omaha World Herald article on the wall. I guess I’d give it a shot.
In a way, this trip was my goodbye. It was my second and last National competition, my fourth competition in total. I wasn’t ready for it to end, but there I was, climbing into the shotgun of one of the vans. We pulled out of the school grounds. I supposed that was the beginning of a great goodbye. At 6:00 A.M. we left Omaha, Nebraska.
“259.” I bit my lip in a deep sense of disappointment. It was a major drop from my last score of 273.“It could be worse.” My friend said, in a futile effort to console me. I smiled tightly, shoving down an irrepressible sense of failure.
I stretched, pulling out all those little kinks. It was raining and we had taken shelter under a gas station for our lunch break. Food was set out on top of the truck’s covered bed. I watched the adults out of the corner of my eye, meditatively. They had been going for close to nine hours with the occasional pit-stop. We had our main coach with us, who was also the principal of the school, Bishop Mark Pivarunas. We simply called him “Bishop”.
“288, 282, 276…”
The Bishop still got us pizza that night, even though after five years as champs we took a second. It was not bad at all. I got myself another cup of lemonade and sat back down at my table. I tried a grin. Nobody would know what happened after the tournament- how I sank down in a bathroom stall at the convention hall and cried my heart out.
There was Mr. Dan Hanson, our honorary “senior” and volunteer driver, up for whatever we were up for. Sister Cecilia was also along for the trip. She coached the grade-schoolers and drove the girls’ van. I was her “co-pilot” and disc jockey. Then there was Reverend Mr. Geckle (aka “Tim” or “Reverend”), going around, keeping the morale up with his ever present sense of humor and encouragement. These were the people who kept us going.
“You made the team.”
I made it. That took the edge off of me. A welled up sense of bitterness started to slowly leak out of me and fade away… I fell to my knees with a thud in the church later. I stared ahead, something jolting within me. What was archery to me anymore?
We arrived in Louisville, finally. The city was alive. Every building filled the streets with an almost harsh glow. Something clenched within me. Apprehension. Was I ready for tomorrow?
“You’ll be fine.” Sister Cecilia smiled at my nerves.
I landed an arrow into one of the bright balloons tacked to a target. A hoot and holler went up from my teammates. I just liked the feel of shooting. I guess it started to click then. I liked archery.
Suddenly- there were bursts of brilliantly colored light in the sky. I almost laughed. It was a fireworks show.
“Best welcome ever.” I remarked as we drove by the Slugger’s Stadium, filled with fans enjoying their triumph.
Hours every week were spent in practicing but I was only just starting to realize- what mattered is that I liked, no, loved archery and was willing to put in the work to be the best I could be. A score was a just a score and sometimes people have bad days.
I crashed into my bed that night, after saying evening prayers. I set my alarm in the darkness of the room. The two other girls sharing my room stayed up longer, going over the National anthem which we had been asked to sing before our flight. The boys had bunked up in the barn across the house we were staying in. Our benefactor, a lovely lady in the country area of Kentucky, had opened her place to us for the night. We managed to snatch a handful of hours of sleep.
So was this redemption? Is that why I wanted National’s so badly?
I shook my head and pulled out my Algebra. If I wanted to practice back at the boarding house, I would need to get my homework done now.
We faced the new day before the dawn. There was something tangible in the air, even in the woolen fuzz of tiredness in the morning. We gathered on the porch to practice the National anthem. The sun was rising.
“By the dawn’s early light…”
Sister Gertrude played the measure once again, her fingers flying across the piano. I looked up at the flag in the classroom. The choir began to sing, this time more carefully. We were all anxious to do well. Singing was another “extra-curricular activity” that was important to those of us who had music strumming through us..
“Age quod agis.” Reverend Mr. Geckle wisely quoted at me. Do what you do. I looked at my fingers in the morning light. There were definite calluses. They were a part of me. Archery was a part of me. I would shoot like I had shot a thousand times before. I just prayed today would be a good day.
We entered the Exposition Center. It was massive. A steady stream of archers entered behind us. It was a riot of colors, a mass of faces like ours, full of expectation for the day ahead. It struck me then, how all of us were so different. We varied in ages, accents, and States we called home, but we were all united by our common passion- archery.
Inside the hall, though, was different. We were greeted by an expanse of grey lit by hundreds of overhead lights. There were few people in here, mostly volunteers getting ready for the events of the day. It felt like the deep breath before the plunge into the middle of the ocean. We dove.
When our equipment was placed at the ready, we gathered for a pow-wow with the Bishop. We had gotten his speech a million times before but it carried a certain gravity now. We were at National’s 2015. I looked down the shooting line. It stretched on for a small eternity.
“…school…Mater Dei…Omaha…” A man’s voice came rumbling over the speakers. That was our cue. We walked over to the MC’s platform. There was no green room but we arranged ourselves before the microphone. I rubbed my palms on my skirt.
“…National Anthem.” Reverend Mr. Geckle raised his hand to direct us. He smiled brightly to encourage us. We’d get through this, and we’ll do it well. His hand came down.
Our voices resounded through speakers and the hall, echoing in a magnificent strain. It startled me. I glanced at the people standing beyond, with their hands over their hearts. Oh say does that star spangled banner… It was one of those moments I’ll remember for the rest of my life. …Yet wave? Oe’r the land of the free… It had gone beyond emotion… and the home of the brave? This was a promise of fidelity, resounding in the hearts of my fellow archers and countrymen.
When the last reverberations faded out, we bowed and walked off amid applause to take our place at the shooting line.
We apologize for poor sound quality as we raced to set up to get this footage.
I shook myself out.
It was ironic how getting ready to shoot was considerably harder for me than getting ready to sing before hundreds of people. But I remembered the support I had of my loved ones, my coaches, and God. We stepped up to the line after the signal. Everything we had worked for led up to this.
Eight times I stood before the line waiting for that double whistle and each time I closed my eyes and crossed myself, ignoring a flash of fear of embarrassment. I would be who I was, no empty apologies about it. Thoughts of One who was crucified by sin for love gave me strength and steadied my shaking hands. I ended my ten-meter set with a 145.
It also helped having my brother, Jose, there. Archery was one of the few things we had in common and we mutually supported one another in it. “Shoot well,” I said to him as we stood at the fifteen-meter line. He nodded.
“Are we going to name the bow?” I looked proudly at the new red bow.
I shot my first round decently but it wasn’t enough. Some of my old desperation threatened to surge back. I stifled it and “knuckled down” as my coach would say. Archery was about having control and focusing, no matter what. I put my heart and soul into my arrows until I came to the very last, the very last arrow in my last high school competition.
“How many arrows did you shoot?”
I shrugged. Practicing was a sort of stress relief now. I didn’t relax on my form, though. It was still practice.
It was a unique arrow, used for one out of what must be thousands of shots I had ever made. I fingered it carefully on the string. Shooting for Mater Dei, my family, my coaches- it wasn’t pressure anymore, it was privilege. I sighted the target, advice from through every practice and from everyone who ever helped me fleeting through my mind.
“If you see in this picture…”
I rolled my eyes then but tried it later in practice.
It landed into the target with a satisfying thump. It was a beautiful shot and it was my last. As I walked back, I impulsively kissed my bow in a sort of goodbye. It would go on to be used by my younger siblings who will hopefully go to Mater Dei.
“Nice group, Philomena.”
I nodded my head shyly, going to pull out the cluster of arrows the Bishop just complimented.
Our team can be proud now of how far we’ve come but most of it has been due to others. Our parents unfailingly encourage us and some travel great distances to come and see us shoot.
I ran to hug him.
“You’re dropping your arm.”
Another arrow flew.
We also had each other. Teammates, past and present, we have all supported each other in our journey, not only to Nationals, but through life.
And we owed most of all, to God, the gift of life and the strength and courage to carry on each day. We love archery, not because it gives us a shot at glory but because it can help shape us into the young men and women of today. Determination, patience, and focus all come into play when you pick up a bow. Then it all depends upon you and God.
At Nationals, the Mater Dei Team placed 45th out of 192 schools in the United States. We “did good.” We’re ready to do even better. I may have shot my last arrow in high school but I hope new archers at Mater Dei will look at the pictures and the bows and say, “Let’s do this.”
As for myself, there’s a dream somewhere in the back of my mind to be a teacher. If I do become one, there will come a time when I will place a bow into my students’ hands. Then their journey will begin.