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Denise Parker was just 13 when she went to the 1987 Pan American Games. She was the youngest archer on the U.S. team and its biggest surprise.
Totally unfazed in her first senior international competition, the 5-foot-4 left-hander from Utah stunned the field by winning the individual gold medal and helping the Americans win the team competition.
Of course she had no idea she'd have a long, successful career in the sport and 28 years later be the CEO of USA Archery, getting ready to watch U.S. men and women compete in another Pan Am Games in Toronto beginning July 10.
"The beauty of that whole time is that I didn't even think about the future," says Parker, laughing. "That wasn't even a thought. I didn't even think about the Olympics the next year. … I was just absolutely in the moment, a 13-year-old enjoying competition, representing the country and in this exciting event."
|Denise Parker competes at the Indianapolis 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis.
Parker went on to become a three-time Olympian and team bronze medalist on the 1988 U.S. team in Seoul. And her medals at those '87 Pan Ams were just the start of an amazing run of success. In four Pan Ams (1987, '91, '95 and '99) she won 15 medals, including 12 golds. It's the second highest career medal tally for any female athlete at the Pan Am Games behind the 19 of Canadian swimmer Joanne Malar.
Parker wasn't aware she held that distinction until recently when she saw a story about it.
"I think the older I get, the more fun it is to look back," said Parker, 41. It was that first Pan Am Games that remains her fondest memory. She calls that time "magical" for both she and her family.
Young Talent Rising
Now the U.S. men's and women's teams will go into Toronto with four of its six athletes getting their first real taste of international competition in the year before the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The men's recurve team will consist of Brady Ellison, a 2012 Olympic team silver medalist and former No. 1 in the world, with newcomers Zach Garrett and Collin Klimitchek. Klimitchek this year won an individual bronze in a world cup event. He and Garrett also were part of the three-man team that won silver at the recent World Archery Youth Championships in South Dakota. Klimitchek also won an individual silver medal there.
On the women's side, five-time Olympian Khatuna Lorig is joined by newcomers Ariel Gibilaro and LaNola Pritchard.
Parker calls it an exciting - and somewhat scary - season of change for U.S. archery, with the influx of young talent onto the national teams.
|(L-R) Melanie Skillman, Deborah Ochs and Denise Parker compete in the women's archery team event at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
"We've got these two kind of real anchors to the team (Ellison and Lorig), but we've got these four members, both the men and women, who are both really young and completely new to the scene," said Parker, noting that the young archers are all training together at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. "So whenever that happens it's always kind of a fear, just of the unknown because they haven't been out there. You haven't seen them perform on the world stage. But I would say that so far this year they're doing great."
She pointed to a bronze medal the women won as a team at a world cup event this year at Shanghai, as a sign of the team's potential.
July will be a huge month for U.S. teams. The Pan Ams will be followed by the World Archery Championships in Denmark, beginning July 26. The back-to-back events will be a crucible for the young archers. The world championships especially will be important, because qualifying spots for next year's Olympic Games will be on the line.
"I think it's a great opportunity for them to … see how it feels," Parker said. "It's so difficult as an athlete, the first time you go through an experience like that. It's a bit overwhelming. It's so good to get one of those under your belt so that you can better prepare for the next competition."
Building Long-Term Success
Parker isn't quite sure what to expect in Rio de Janeiro from U.S. archers. She knows they'll be talented and capable of beating the best. But she compares archery to golf, where in almost any given event individuals can rise to the top or fall.
With a year to go, both men and women are among the world's elite. The U.S. men are ranked sixth. The women are 12th.
|Denise Parker carries the American flag at the Seoul 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
"The key for us is to be a contender," she said. "To have that capability that at any given time we can put those arrows together in the matches in the competitions that we need to do that. Most definitely I feel like both teams can."
In fact, building an overall program at USA Archery that has a broad base of talent and potential - one that consistently feeds talented athletes onto the national teams as it has this year - has been Parker's goal since becoming CEO in 2008. She calls it building a "full and complete pipeline."
"If you just try to look to the next Olympics or the next summer, you'll always sell yourself short," she said. "Maybe it's something that I learned as a competitor. It's kind of that long-term focus … do the right things and practice and train and put all the elements together. Whatever happens on the end, the other side, happens. You can't control that outcome. But you can control what you put into it and the structure you put into place."
Like a baseball franchise building a farm system, Parker has been intent on laying the groundwork with clubs, youth development and coaching. She points to a six-fold growth in USA Archery membership since 2008 and doubling the number of clubs, adding staff and getting big help from partners such as the Easton Foundations and Archery Trade Association.
Parker sees young national team archers such as Garrett and Klimitchek, Gibilaro and Pritchard and the recent World Archery Youth Championships medal as examples of success at the top of a broad, wide base in a pyramid of success. She doesn't want just a one-year breakthrough. She wants to be part of a program that is consistently excellent.
Also on her agenda is an Olympic team medal by the women. Their last was the 1988 team she was on.
"It pains me," she said. "I don't like that stat at all. I'm here to see it go away."
Certainly, seeing young archers come through - after succeeding herself as a 13-year-old on the world stage - is one of her favorite things.
"I absolutely love it," she said. "It's the best part of my job, it really is."
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written to TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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