He'll take his best shot

It's generally accepted in this country that sneaking up on a group of people in the woods with a bow and arrow in your hands will likely get you thrown in jail. Or, if you're John Magera, and you pick the right week, you might get thrown on the U.S. Olympic archery team.

Magera, a lifelong bow hunter, who picked up an Olympic style recurve bow for the first time 16 months ago, stunned the field at the Olympic trials in June by finishing third and securing the final spot on the U.S. team headed to Athens this summer. It was his fourth tournament ever.

"My goal wasn't to make the Olympic team," Magera said. "I was using the trials as a way to improve my ranking. I was actually aiming for the 2005 U.S. team."

Obviously, Magera's aim is better than even he expected.

For the past 25 years, Magera, a wildlife refuge manager, enjoyed bow hunting as a family pastime. He says he loved the beauty of the outdoors, the challenge of learning an animal's habits, and on occasion, when he did take aim and shoot, the fundamentally appealing arc of his arrow's flight.

"The flight of an arrow is something that is instinctive with human beings," he said. "It's something we've done for thousands of years. Every shot is different. It's just the most amazing feeling in the world."

Trading the freedom of hunting for the rules and restrictions of target competition was not something Magera ever considered. But after enrolling two of his children in a nationwide Junior Olympic archery program in 2002, he found his own interest was piqued. After all, it was a stationary target, a lighter bow, even a metal sight to help guide the shot. How hard could it be?

"That's what I was thinking," Magera said, "but it's sort of the difference between your weekend frozen pond skaters and your Olympic skaters. Just because you can go out on the pond and skate doesn't mean you can do a triple axel."

Flash forward to mid-June, 2004 -- the Olympic trials in Mason, Ohio. Magera survived the first day's cut from the country's top 64 archers down to the best 16. He then made it through two additional days of round-robin matches and had slipped into the final eight. With more than 400 arrows shot and only the final day remaining, he was holding on to third place -- the last Olympic slot -- by just 11 points.

And then, with little fanfare, he had done it. By not having to contend with expectations and a mental toughness he attributes to years of playing golf, Magera is now the U.S. archery team's third official member, their "X-factor."

Not surprisingly, his competitors were still trying to figure out who the heck he was. That wasn't such a bad thing.

"I think that was a huge advantage for me," he said. "Everyone else knew each other. They didn't know me, and when I started shooting well, I'm sure it put a lot of pressure on them."

U.S. coach Frank Thomas agrees.

"He's an unknown quantity," Thomas said. "But it was an extremely rigorous process and when other guys were falling by the wayside, he was just steady."

Everyone loves an underdog, but does everyone want one on their team?

Indeed, archery is an individual sport, but there is also a team competition. So, two Americans who have suddenly taken great interest in Magera are his far more experienced teammates, four-time Olympian Butch Johnson and Vic Wonderle, 2000 silver medalist in Sydney. A three-day training camp just after the trials gave the newly formed team a chance to get acquainted.

"Vic and I talked to him a lot and tried to clue him in on what's going to happen," Johnson said. "It looks like he's going to be a really positive asset to this team."

Magera also will travel and compete in the Turkish Grand Prix event in July so he can get his first taste of international competition before Athens.

"I can't think about medals," he said. "I've got one goal -- to shoot a (bullseye). I'll be thinking arrow to arrow to arrow."

Magera's life is different these days. His compound hunting bow lays idle on a shelf in his garage. Rather than visualizing antlers, he sees targets, and his days are more about precision and endurance than relaxation and nature.

It might stay that way for a while.

The night before his final round at the trials, Magera knew he was shooting well enough to make the team. A 34-year-old father of three, Magera called his wife, Karin, and said: "Are you sure you're ready for this? Because if I do this, we're going to be so busy for so long."

The couple agreed it was an opportunity worth the extra work.

"Archery doesn't consume me," Magera said. "I hate to say this, but I've worked pretty hard to be a pretty average guy."