NORTH TONAWANDA – Mark Irlbacher got started with his lifelong passion for bows and arrows by following the sounds of crashing walls in his East Buffalo neighborhood 47 years ago.
"We just heard the guy banging on the walls in there and we went there, as curious kids, to check," said Ilbacher of the now defunct Bowman's Haven on Delevan Avenue near Newburgh Street. "We started shooting at the targets and hitting all over the place and then started getting better," he said of archery. "It kind of sucks you right in, wanting to get better and better."
He was 12 then and he and a friend offered to help the owner, Bill Hamm, knock down walls.
And so began the pursuit that led Irlbacher to compete in and win so many statewide contests, he's lost track.
In 1996, he opened his own shooting gallery, Doc's Archery, on the second floor of the Wurlitzer building on Niagara Falls Boulevard.
Five years ago he added an attraction that draws people from 50 miles away: A video range, like a little movie theater, with films of animals and arrows with rounded tips that register hits on the 10-foot screen.
"People get to shoot at game that they would never be able to hunt for in their life," said Irlbacher. "You could shoot anything from a guinea fowl to an elephant, mountain lion, wildebeest. You name it."
While most of his business comes from bow hunters wanting practice, he credits two archery-infused movies for drawing a new crowd of young people this year: "The Hunger Games" and "Brave," the animated Pixar movie about the Scottish princess whose skill as an archer leads her to win the right to delay marriage until it suits her.
"Those are the two big players this year," he said. "Since those movies came out we're probably up 1,000 percent from a normal year."
Usually, he gives about 50 to 75 private archery lessons a year. This year, he's given 500. Pay-as-you-go Saturday group lessons, for $9 each, start in January for kids from 7 to 17 years old.
>Do you know the local guy who won a silver medal in archery in the Olympics this summer?
Jake Kaminski. I've met him. I met him before he got into that higher level of competition. I know of him more than I know him.
I remember him shooting at our shop in one of our tournaments several years ago. When I look back at it, I kind of remember the guy being there and I kind of remember I wasn't impressed with his shooting at the time. I guess he took it to another level. When he got to the archery training center out west, it became a whole other story then.
>What competitions have you won?
I've probably won the state championship 15 or 20 times. I don't even know the actual count. That included this year. I won the indoor and outdoor championship this year. I haven't won a national championship. I've been second and third and in the top five.
>What do you think keeps you from winning nationally?
Probably 900 other people shooting at it keeps me from winning.
The two guys that won, they had one more X out of 60 shots than I did. X is at the center of the bull's eye. It's used for a tie breaker.
>How does a person aim for the Olympics?
You do need to become affiliated with a national organization. The National Archery Association. They govern Olympic-style shooting.
>You are with the National Field Archery Association? How is that different?
The NFAA isn't necessarily geared toward Olympic competition because we use different equipment. The Olympics do not allow the use of the compound bow. With the NFAA a lot of the competition is with compound bow.
>What is that?
A bow that's designed with a cam-and-pulley system that reduces the weight of the bow when you pull it back. It's obviously an advantage. It gives a little more of an advantage to people that hold the heavier weight bows. Using a 50-pound bow, I only have to hold 12 pounds when I pull it back.
>How does the weight of the bow affect shooting?
The higher the weight of the bow, the flatter the trajectory of the arrow, the easier it is to gain accuracy at distance.
>How often do you shoot?
During the target seasons, January to August, I shoot two or three times a week. One to two hours. I used to shoot a lot more before I owned a business.
Bow-hunting season just ended. We're not really shooting a lot during bow-hunting season. It'll start to pick up now. Once the snow flies a little bit, that's when our shooting picks up.
>What do you like about the sport?
It definitely teaches you discipline. The concentration level has got to be there. The self-discipline to do the same thing every time. Everyone doesn't have that in them. There's also the physicality of it. The stronger your muscles become, the better it is for competition: You can hold the bow steadier to make a better shot.
>Are there many women?
Overall, women are probably somewhere between 5 and 10 percent. That number has definitely been increasing in the past few years. In young kids, it's pretty close to 50-50.
>Can you tell me the story of someone who you worked with on archery and who stands out for some reason?
I've got one young fellow who is a shining example of someone who pursued the sport. He was an average shooter for a while and then started getting much worse. Really. The kid really wanted to get better. He obviously needed something more.
We found different equipment that cured the problem he was having and he's gone on to win huge things. He's won tournaments all over the country.
He started with us when he was 7 or 8 years old in our youth program.
>What was wrong?
Performance anxiety is the reason why Shaquille O'Neal can't shoot a free throw. There's a similar thing in archery. It's called target panic. So with target panic, when people get target panic some people think they're actually going nuts. They find themselves not being able to aim at the middle of the bull's eye and not being able to aim on the target at all before they let go of the string. It gets worse and worse. They can't even hit the target anymore. So that's the problem.
There are several possible ways of curing it. Some of them are mechanical, actually. This young fellow was shooting with a mechanical release. Pull the trigger, it lets go of the bow string and sends the arrow flying.
Now he uses a different release that does not allow the shooter to hit the trigger to set the release off. It's shot by "back tension." They have to keep pulling harder and harder and harder, until the actual mechanics of the thing let it go by itself.
Know a Niagara County resident who'd make an interesting column? Write to: Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email email@example.com.