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The ethos of empowerment

Updated: Nov 12, 2022

So now we come to a very special story and this one for me has its origins at none other than, believe it or not, the Dunbrody 100 3D shoot which was held earlier this year by Dunbrody Archers at their beautiful woods in Tinnacarrick, O'Rahilly View, County Wexford. It was an exceptional occasion being the first 100 3D shoot following the easing of Covid pandemic restrictions and as such quite a few had travelled from afar to partake in this now legendary competition with word of its challenges, breath taking views and welcoming atmosphere continuing to spread further and further afield like ripples in a pond. Wandering around the site catching up with fellow shooters just before registration commenced on that early June morning, near to where the tents had been pitched, I met with David Uprichard of Kilmore Archery in Craigavon. Having earlier that year attended an indoor IFAA shoot there, we naturally got to chatting about Kilmore Archery, the closure of its current venue, its relocation, future and the sale of its associated archery shop nearby which was up to that point run by Wellesley McGowan. At this point David introduced me to Michael Fisher, setting up nearby, of Elite Archery and who had just recently purchased the business soon to metamorphose into that which we now know as Archery Spot NI. Funny thing is and this is another indication of the twists, turns and quirks of fate whereupon an impromptu meeting, a brief discussion, can lead to a whole other tangential journey. I had only been chatting with Michael for a few minutes about his recent foray into archery retail when the conversation again naturally drifted towards Elite Archery, Michaels own club. Writing for TIFAM is one thing, covering clubs, shoots, archers, equipment and the tremendous work and dedication given to the pursuit by so many clubs, their members and coaches. However , chatting with Michael for those oh so brief few minutes I very quickly came to the realisation that not only did I want to write about this intriguing and pause-for-thought enticing club but that it deserved a special type of focus. A focus beyond the bustle and associated euphoria generated by the competition season and everything that goes along with that, everything that is caught up in the whirlwind of those intense weekend shoots. So, we shook hands agreed a provisional date parted company and both disappeared into the massive crowd that had at this stage enthusiastically gathered around the clubhouse.

The Rabbit Rooms. A most relaxing spot with seriously nice grub.

Over the weeks our paths crossed several times at various shoots, and it was always the understanding without the need for repeated reminders that we would hold true to our arranged meeting. With the dust settling after what was an extremely intense weekend of shooting in Limerick courtesy of the Limerick Field Archery Club who hosted the SIFA championships at their woods near Glenstal forest, there was now the time and space available to pay just notice to this particular topic. As an aside Michael and his increasingly familiar Elite Archery entourage managed to make an appearance at this shoot also setting up his pop-up shop and attracting a steady stream of well-deserved custom.

At the crack of dawn on the 21st of August I loaded up the car and set off to Bangor in County Down. Michael had very kindly asked me to host what would turn out to be an extremely busy workshop on archery bowstrings. This would subsequently coincide perfectly with some much needed downtime afterwards within the confines of a comfortable snug at the wonderful, dare I say eccentrically charming, Rabbit Rooms adjacent to the Bangor Marina for to enable us chat at ease about the incredible story that is Elite Archery.

Chatting with Michael Fisher of Elite Archery and Archery Spot NI.

For the beginning, and I do mean the beginning, to appreciate and understand the origins of Elite Archery we have to first delve way back into the past of Michael Fisher himself, for his personal journey from a young age is a tale of tragedy and recovery, disappointment and reward, all compounded to hone a passionate, infectious perseverance and instil a drive - actually a thirst - to help those for whom the fickleties of fate provided a similar bitter pill to swallow.

At the very young age of eight Michael was involved in a serious road traffic accident. This resulted in what we often hear termed as life changing injuries. The consequent paralysis and long painful road to recovery, still ongoing to this day, meant there was an interruption to a social and academic development that for many is taken so often for granted. It was during this slow return to normalcy that Michael came across others on whom similar tragedies had befallen and who were similarly trying as best they could to recover, however difficult and sadly sometimes impossible that was. It also meant that Michael very quickly needed to learn how to deal with scenarios that many never even encounter. There was an enormous practical element to this and as such therein lay Michaels predominant focus when it came to facing day-to-day situations as opposed to availing of the full benefits of learning with an academic emphasis. This coupled which the assumption by others that Michael would somehow be potentially compromised by some long-term underlying brain trauma meant that there would be that additional hurdle to overcome. However, overcome it he did. Michael returned to mainstream education successfully but always maintained an interest in activity-based development especially when it came to providing support to those who very often needed it the most. It so happened that Michaels own father was the first director of the YMCA in Greenhill, Newcastle. He introduced Michael to such pursuits as kayaking, canoeing and wide variety of water sports. Another activity he was also involved in was archery and it was this that captured the imagination of the still very young Michael because here he was presented with a means to exploring his own personal boundaries not just physically and mental but serving as way of measuring his own progress with hard work and determination. In later years he was always mindful of the impact that archery had on his own life and how it enabled him to face many of his own struggles and so this is how he came to apply it in assisting those particularly with special needs, both adults and children. He found it to be an excellent and flexible tool in allowing them to experience the thrill and joy in setting goals and dedicating themselves to achieving something. It also proved to be extremely rewarding for family and friends who could share the experience of their loved ones reaching new previously unattainable heights.

This motivation to give back held firm since those early days from undertaking an archery beginners course under Wellesley McGowan to obtaining his driver’s licence 18 years ago, then seeking out insurance, gaining the required qualifications and going so far as buying a trailer and his own equipment to hit the road and visit special needs schools and organisations to share the empowerment of archery. This is the core of Michaels ethos also to be found written now on the side of his van with the words ‘Empowering People through Archery’, because to be able to take someone within say half an hour from missing the target to hitting it and during that short time frame give them that sense of personal control is actually what it's all about. As archery is very much an individual pursuit, but regularly takes place within a group setting. This means that one is not necessarily subject to the pressures of having to deliver and impress but they are still in a position to meet people and make friends at their own pace and then benefit from the mutual support and encouragement that comes from that.

Michaels first company was called AIM (Archery Instruction Mobile) with archery as being the core driver and this is where it all started having secured contracts with Ulster Scots and seven or eight other special needs schools. This eventually led to Michael becoming involved with the charity ALT (Adventure Leadership Training) who own the building from which Elite Archery now currently operates. This was a natural transition with Michael already now qualified in water sports-based skills, climbing activities and with ALT having the concept of empowerment very much as a guiding principle and then archery proving to be very much a tool for that. So, Michael joined as an activities coordinator and this is when momentum really started to gather with an enormous range of outdoor pursuits and water-based activities being developed particularly for special needs children and those suffering from chest, heart and stroke maladies. On one occasion having learned of a young chap coming to visit the centre to try archery, but was missing an arm, Michael went down to the hardware store, bought wood and screws and proceeded to construct a rig that would securely support the bow but at the same time allow the shooter draw back the string and loose his arrow. Another time with a group of visually impaired children planning to visit the centre, again with archery on their mind, it was back down to the hardware store and the pound shop. Strips of wood would be attached to the ground as a physical line-marker. A soft haired brush mounted on a camera tripod in line with the target facilitated a subtle sensory reference point for height when drawing alongside it. These examples are given not for any kudos or accolades but as symbols of empowerment and what can be achieved with a little bit of enthusiasm and a strong desire to help.

It is an amazing thing to witness first-hand what has been achieved at Elite Archery as well as what is being given back to so many here when so very early on having spent three weeks in a coma, one week on a life support machine and coming so very close to the end Michaels future at that young age was effectively dismissed as sealed and curtailed. Nonetheless and perhaps as a result of his own personal trauma, Michael came out the other end with an almost overwhelming need to give back. That and a very strong core value for family and those close to him is largely what sustains him.

Continuing to grow and go from strength to strength Michael has in the last year taken over Wellesley McGowan’s’ archery shop business formerly adjacent to the venue for Kilmore Archery Club and moved it moved it to The Bloomfield Business Park within the Elite Archery Centre. We now know this as the increasingly familiar and present Archery Spot NI.

Drawing from his experience as a former child protection officer for NIFAA, as activities coordinator for the centre Michael does have quite a degree of autonomy in how he runs it. Over the years those who have availed of its services have in some ways grown up with it and as such frequently return on a volunteer basis to help with the day today functioning. It is not just sports activities alone that are provided here, however. It serves as a hub, a gathering point, somewhere for relaxing and taking time out. There are two pool tables and a dart board which has been positioned at a height to allow its use by a wheelchair user. There's a green area with a fridge and kettle for relaxing and a chat. Throughout the centre one can see the equipment that is put to regular use depending on the occasion and the need.

Some of the gang of Elite after a busy day string making.

A question often asked is whether it is the Elite Centre or is it Elite Archery and frankly the answer is yes and no. Its proper title is Elite Archery but it's more than just that and maybe that's where the confusion sometimes arises. During the Covid pandemic, the club that was Elite Archery saw its membership dwindle with shoots postponed and the motivation to gather recede and having to change locations on several occasions. Prior to the COVID pandemic Elite Archery would typically hold two or three club shoots annually. It wasn't just the shoots and the archery competitions that Michael missed. It was this social aspect of the club where people came together as a mutually supportive group. This was part of the vision that Michael had for Elite Archery when it came to re-building it bit by bit. Yes, it is a centre catering for many needs and delivering many activities for many people. However as mentioned previously it has archery as its core motivating factor and providing its cohesion. So, when Michael appears on the range with his merry group of Elite Archers, it's not just to shoot. There is an underlying symbol there of the inclusivity and empowerment that is provided by archery and that is what Michael is striving to capture with Elite Archery.

It was under Michael Fisher that Elite Archery hosted the first NIFAA Outdoor championships. Sadly, it took place on the same day as the funeral of his grandfather. However, Michael decided that from that day forward on that date Elite Archery would hold a memorial shoot. Support for this event would be shown by clubs travelling from afar as field as Dunbrody to attend. With three or four clubs from Northern Ireland and seven or eight clubs from the South being represented there would be regularly 47 or 48 archers taking part. There was also the annual Christmas fun shoot which proved to be extremely popular and which Michael is planning on rebooting this year. We're looking at the 11th December for this so make a note in your calendars.

In the field, wrapped up and rearing to go.

The benefits of the after schools’ club that Michael has set up can be seen with young archers having peers with a similar interest. They are not on their own, as can often be the case on those first few shoots, they have already many things in common and by the time they venture into the field are already friends. It is this sense of isolation too that can be such a debilitating factor during those first few competitions and it sadly often results in many simply just walking away.

Visit from the SIFA National Championships Limerick 2022 club champion Richard Coss

In Elite Archery there are those who have been members since the age of eight and having traveled and trained together are still shooting well into their teens with one even making the archery GB team. A phrase or notion that repeatedly arose during our conversation was that of being ‘placed in a box’. In trying to understand what Elite Archery is about and where exactly do their priorities lie this is exactly what many within archery circles, perhaps unintentionally, do. Elite certainly explores and promotes archery, but as one avenue of development, albeit a core one. Archery for Michael is his downtime, his retreat, his way of switching off and doing something for himself. Running Elite Archery club is how he achieves this. If archery is something that people wish to pursue then Michael is there to assist them on this journey, providing the necessary coaching and bringing them to shoots and allowing them to thrive in this pursuit. However, if archery is not to their flavour then that's fine too, it doesn't change anything. Michael will still happily hop in the van and go to a competition and relax that way.

Another busy session

The naecdotes and testimonials glowingly abound from children, their parents and adults of varying needs, backgrounds and abilities who started off attending the Elite centre only to subsequently discover archery there and the difference it has made to their lives, with a sense of empowerment bestowed upon them previously deemed unattainable.

Elite Archery members always there to lend a hand. Good man Thomas aka ‘Stretch’.

It's all about archery and the craic and more archery

While archery exists as one of several optional occasional activities provided by the centre, many members have nonetheless progressed to undertake their beginners course receiving continued coaching and guidance from Michael to the point where he is comfortable enough to bring them out to safely and competently compete. It's not about trying to actively control people, or push them in a certain direction as such, or about the expansion of Elite Archery per se. Most people come in having heard about archery from their friends and just want to give it a go. Alternatively, it might be a controlled rotational segment activity moving on from say the bouncy castle and the pool table as part of a birthday party or celebration.

The story of a 17 year old youth paralyzed from the waist down having to undergo and recover from a back operation intended to last only three weeks but drawn out to over three months during COVID pandemic, and the ensuing curtailments that entailed, was particularly touching. During this period lying there In a London hospital bed he wasn't allowed to have any visitors and then afterwards adhering to safety isolation protocols when he did return home to Northern Ireland it was via helicopter. On returning home the first question he asked his parents was when he could return to archery. All that time on his own lying there this is what helped sustain him and this is what he felt that, despite everything, he could return to and do well in. Suffice to say this was relayed to Michael by his parents and serves as but one example off the ethos of empowerment.

When it comes to affiliations Kilmore Archery operated under NIFAA. With Michael purchasing Wellesley's archery retail business, which was at the same location as Kilmore Archery, he is obviously eager for it to be increasingly readily identified as Archery Spot NI. When it comes to giving beginners courses, signing off new archers and their subsequent governing body affiliation for competing, Elite Archery now provides this under the auspices of IFAF with Michael becoming an IFAF coach.

Just a quick drop at Killygarry Archers before onto the next.

Elite Archery and Archery Spot NI effectively occupy the same floor space and with Michael over both there's also the benefit for those purchasing their first set of equipment in availing of face to face advice. In determining their best fit new archers can try out different bows of varying styles, poundage and size and ancillary equipment such as tabs and guards without having to order items online or through the post in the vague hope that they somehow just may fit and if they don't, making do anyway. As an aside there is also the support for small local businesses such as the nearby Rainbow Bowstrings who make custom strings for Archery Spot NI.

Pop up shop. Michael’s attending a lot of shoots countrywide these days so make sure you give him a shout with your needs beforehand.

So, after all that what does the future hold for both Elite Archery and Archery Spot NI? Both are growing, that much is clear. Will one become bigger than the other? Which one will require more time and focus? Maybe Elite archery will grow and draw in an increasing number of volunteers. Maybe Archery Spot NI will expand requiring additional staff? These are hypothetical questions. For now, Michael has his hands full with keeping the center running and developing a fledgling business and, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, paying the bills. Empowerment though, is his source of faith and inner strength and sustains an enviable passionate drive to help others. It most certainly was an experience and a pleasure for me to visit the center and meet some of its members and try and delve into the workings of this wonderful place.

Well done Michael Fisher.

If you build it, they will come, and boy did they, in droves!

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