When Denise Parker first put bow in hand and notched an arrow in the string, there were no outward signs of greatness. She held the bow awkwardly, like any 10-year-old might, her arrows wobbled in flight and her pattern was more chance than skill.
But, she liked it, and that was reason to continue. In the four years since, the young South Jordan miss has developed into America's top female archer. In as much time as it took most of the world's best archers to decide on a target, Denise aimed and hit it dead center.When she shoots now, people watch. And when she's finished, it's almost always as a winner. Last month, as calmly as if she were changing stations on her radio, the young archer outshot 75 of the best female shooters in the U.S., most with more years of experience than Parker has birthdays, to become America's No. 1 Olympic hopeful.
For that, Denise Parker was selected as the Deseret News Athlete of the Month for June.
All this instant success has, of course, led to a lot of questions.
Like, how can a girl with only four years behind a bow, and only a little over one year shooting adult-style tournaments, do so well? How can a girl one-year into her teens, with braces on her teeth, outshoot women with trophies older than she is? How can a girl not yet strong enough to draw the standard-size bow outdo women who can? How can a girl from a state where basketball and skiing rule, become so good at a sport getting only slightly more attention then cutter racing and tractor pulls?
Helping to build an Olympian profile, her father, Earl, points out that she's very competitive. He recalls she lost her first tournament three years ago, and thereupon pledged to return the following week with a different outcome. She practiced hard the days in between and did return and did win. That was the beginning, he jokes today.
She also handles pressure well, he adds. The Denise Parker trademark developed this past year has been that the tougher the pressure, the tighter is her grouping to center. Not only does she not like to lose, she doesn't like to trail, either, and consistently shoots better scores when pressed.
Her coach, Tim Strickland from Pinebluff, Ark., adds that Denise is one of the rare individuals he's come across that believes "what you say. I tell her she can win and she really doesn't see why she shouldn't. I tell her she needs to do something to shoot better and she does it. If she needs to shoot three perfect 10s to win, she sees no reason why she can't - and will."
Concentration is another of her assets. Given 21/2 minutes to shoot a round of three arrows in a tournament, she seldom takes a minute. If she's not the first to finish, she's very close. While other archers draw and hold and work to focus on the red center, Parker shoots. One, two, three! No waiting, no break in her concentration.
The senior Parker also believes proper learning during the developing years, followed by Strickland's direction in recent months, eliminated chances of bad habits and techniques from her styles. She is now, says Strickland, one of the most technically perfect archers around - "male or female."
Mental training, too, has played its part in this development process. That part, her coach and father say, she's worked hardest at. To ease the pressure she's learned to move her thoughts to more comfortable settings. At home, for example, right now, during quiet times in her personally designed thinking room, she visualizes herself shooting perfect 10s from the lines in Seoul, Korea . . . draw, release, 10. When she gets to the Olympics in September, she'll sometimes reflect back, when her nerves begin to tighten, to her archery course back home in South Jordan, to a nice sunny day, standing there alone . . . draw, release, 10.
All of these qualities have made it possible for Denise Parker, at the mere age of 14, to win the U.S. Olympic Trials in Oxford, Ohio, last month, and decisively. Working off a perfect score of five, Parker finished with seven points to 12 and 31 for the other two Olympic qualifiers.
She also won two gold medals in the Pan American Games last year, at age 13; became the first U.S. female archer to score over 1,300 (1,301 of a possible 1,440) in a FITA shoot; and become the first American female archer to score over 330 (335 of a possible 360) in a Grand FITA.
After only four years, this 5-foot-3, 105-pound teen is, indeed, America's best-women-at-any-age archer.
And to questions about her potential in the future, Strickland says, "She can be as good as she wants to be, and that could be the best in the world."