Vahe Gregorian

Bow and arrow in hand, Zach Garrett has sights set on Summer Olympics in Rio

Zach Garrett has been competing in archery as long as he can remember. The big payoff could be a trip to Rio this summer.
Zach Garrett has been competing in archery as long as he can remember. The big payoff could be a trip to Rio this summer.

About 45 minutes east of Kansas City sits Wellington, Mo., a rural town of about 800 that Zach Garrett considered both a quaint and awesome place to grow up.

Still, he yearned to experience the world beyond where an unfamiliar car passing is “an event,” he said with a laugh.

His path turned out to be through the backyard of the 10-acre farm of his parents, Andy, a developer, and Robin, a school teacher who answered the phone Wednesday with roosters crowing as she gathered eggs.

That’s where her son spent infinite aimless-but-formative hours simply shooting arrows as far as he could … albeit mindful of roaming horses and cows and goats and dogs and cats on their property and adjacent ones.

That’s where the enduring gift made by his grandfather when Zach was 4 is still on display, 17 years later: An archery addition onto a machine shed in a 90-meter field in a cow pasture is cordoned off with an electric fence, complete with heater and floodlights, so Zach could shoot at night or in any weather.

This is where an Olympic quest took root, one that could come to fruition Monday in the last round of the final phase of the USA Archery trials in Newberry, Fla.

Three U.S. men’s archers will compete in Rio in August, and Zach Garrett is second in the cumulative standings entering a weekend of competition that includes the Gator Cup on Friday and Saturday and the third and final component of the trials Sunday and Monday.

He hasn’t made it yet, cautions his mother, who just finished her 26th year teaching in the Fort Osage School District.

But just in case, she’ll be “in the vicinity” with younger daughter Audrey checking on his scores.

She trusts that no one will tell her son, who is off the social-media sauce for the moment and wants no distractions as he stands on the verge of completing a far-fetched odyssey.

“Wellington, Mo., is not, like, the hub of archery,” Robin Garrett said. “It’s crazy how this has happened. It gives me chills just talking about it. There’s a little bit more at play here than just chances.”

Maybe the very first part of this journey is the best part, though. It’s something that Zach Garrett calls his “best story,” and one that conjures an idyllic Norman Rockwell portrait.

Robin Garrett grew up in Sewickley, Pa., where her father, Vic Mutz, was a steelworker.

They were the sort of family that rarely had a television and might drive out west in a van with no air conditioning or camp on a beach in a tent. Hunting and fishing and trapping were a big part of their lives.

Robin’s sister, Laurie, took to bow hunting back then, but Robin favored deer hunting; she didn’t feel she had the strength for the bow.

So maybe Zach would have picked up a bow some day, and maybe he wouldn’t have.

But when Robin Garrett’s parents came to visit 17 summers ago, Pappy Mutz brought a stick bow he had carved for Zach.

And it became the gift that kept on giving in a sweet relationship.

“The kid was all over that thing,” she said.

Distance was his first interest, but it wasn’t long before he was refining his methods.

Sometime early on, Pappy Mutz challenged him to shoot his hat.

“I don’t think he was happy with the result,” Zach Garrett said, laughing.

He started formal competition through 4-H when he was 8 years old, typically using equipment found at garage sales, and he managed to make the state team for a national competition as a 14-year-old.

Even with what still might be termed inferior equipment: a bow without a sight that Robin Garrett found on eBay.

“I really ought to email that guy I got it from and tell him, ‘Look at what this kid is doing,’ ” she said.

The “kid” became so single-minded and perfectionistic about it that she once shut him down during a competition near Columbia.

He was punishing himself for being off target that day, so she said, “I’m not going to let you do this to yourself. You’re done.”

So they packed up and left.

Mostly, though, her son’s dedication always seemed healthy to her. And she really knew what the sport meant to him when he decided the money he’d been saving for years to buy a car would be better spent on a more sophisticated recurve bow.

Then his will to succeed met happenstance.

One weekend, the family went to Springfield, Mo., to help move Andy Garrett’s mother. By then, Zach Garrett was inseparable from his bow.

When they ventured into a Springfield archery shop to have a look around, as Robin Garrett recalled it, the owner asked if they were aware that an Olympic development program in archery would soon be coming to town.

That’s how they met coach Steve Cornell, who would prove to be a crucial influence.

Two to three times a month for about a year, Robin Garrett would drive her son and daughter from Wellington to Springfield for weekend tutelage that started with taking the bow away from Zach Garrett and making him work with a stretch band.

During the week, Cornell and Garrett would work on technique via Skype. Cornell also made Garrett write down his goals.

Making the Olympic team was one of them.

From there, everything funneled toward this weekend.

That’s why Garrett basically went right from graduation at Wellington-Napoleon High in 2013 to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., near San Diego.

“Guilty by association,” he jokes about his three years in California … but notes he has worn out one Royals cap and is wearing a new one around to “make sure that everybody knows who the best baseball team is.”

More seriously, Garrett is thankful for the benefits of the program — room, board and travel expenses to competitions all over the world — and grateful he went there immediately following graduation instead of taking the summer to lounge.

“It was really overwhelming, how much information you were taking in that first year,” said Garrett, who now is involved in a business developing and selling archery products.

With an Olympic berth in his grasp, the key is to keep it from being overwhelming in a sport where a 1 millimeter error at the line could ruin a shot at the target 70 meters away.

One element of his mental game seems to reverberate from a lesson taught by his mother all those years ago.

“A thing I try to remind myself is I don’t have to go to any competition and be perfect,” Garrett said. “If I do my best, the amount that I train and my dedication will pay off.”

From an improbable starting point, it already has.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian