By Jake Winfrey
The Cullman Times
Rhys Aizlewood’s trek to Cullman was anything but a short trip down the road.
The 34-year-old Australian spent more than 24 hours on an airplane, traveling first to Los Angeles before switching to a connecting flight to Nashville and eventually making his way to town via car with a fellow Aussie.
While most people might consider that a long haul, it comes as second nature to Aizlewood, whose overwhelming love for the sport of archery makes any trip, especially the season-ending ASA Classic, worth making.
“I love coming back to the states,” he said. “I’ve competed in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania. I’m loving Cullman so far. The people here are fantastic, and with all of these archers here, it’s really my version of heaven.”
Along with being a world-class archer, Aizlewood is a big country music fan, so it made sense for the Aussie to spend two days in Nashville, where he soaked up the country scene in the heart of the South.
“When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” he said with a laugh.
Like many athletes in their respective sports, Aizlewood first picked up a bow and arrow at an early age, shooting targets down range at the age of four.
Thirty years later, he finds himself taking part in competitions all around the world and meeting some lifelong friends along the way.
“I’ve been shooting a bow for a long time,” he said. “To me, it’s a sport for the family. You’ll see it out here this weekend, three generations of shooters. It doesn’t matter if you’re 6’6” or 5’1”, eight or 80, you can shoot archery. You meet some great people doing it.”
Aizlewood made the journey to Cullman with his fellow countryman, Grant Elsley, who’s been shooting archery since 1982. He’s a seven-year competitor in the ASA Classic.
“I love doing it,” Elsley said of archery. “It’s my life. I’ve come to this one when it was in West Monroe, La., and Columbus, Ga. It’s all I do.”
One of the first things Elsley has noticed so far in his short stay in Cullman is the willingness of the community to go above and beyond to make he and his fellow archers feel comfortable.
“Everyone here is friendly,” he said. “Very welcoming. I’ve met a lot of good people so far.”
It goes without question this year’s ASA Classic has brought participants from all corners of the globe, whether it’s been Australia, England, New Zealand or even other states such as Indiana and Kansas — just to name a few.
However, just because there is plenty of international blood in this year’s competition doesn’t mean there aren’t a handful of archers right here at home.
Fifteen-year-old Lauren Hunt, a Cullman native, has been shooting since the fifth grade but didn’t develop a love for the sport until middle school. She nows practices quite often and hopes to give the international players a taste of their own medicine in the coming days.
“It’s pretty neat to compete against all of these archers,” she said. “I want to do well. They say you always do your best when you’re at home.”
Some people might think archery is simply aiming and shooting but, as Hunt says, it goes a lot further than that.
As archers prepare to make their shots during the weekend, they’ll have to take into effect more than just their down-range target.
“A lot of people don’t realize how tough it is,” Hunt said. “You have to judge your own distance and aim differently to miss trees. Each shot is different.”
The archers will continue to accumulate points throughout the weekend, setting the stage for a high-stakes shootdown among the top-10 shooters in each gender division on Saturday evening. Each respective winner will take home a hefty cash prize.
While the top archers will lay claim to a nice chunk of money, the four-day competition has certainly been a financial lift for the city of Cullman, with revenue from hotels, restaurants and other goings-on in the community.
Waid Harbison, marketing director for Cullman City Parks and Recreation, said he expects this event to be one of the largest money makers the city will have this year.
“All of this provides economic growth,” he said. “All these people are staying here, eating here and shopping here. It’s going to have a big impact on us financially.”
Although Harbison is usually all business, he finds the influx of competitors from all over “very cool.”
“We do a lot of local things, obviously,” he said. “But this is not only national, but international. It’s really great for us to put it on. It’s a completely different spectrum for us, and the people of Cullman should be really proud to host it.”
% Jake Winfrey can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 136 or at email@example.com.