When John Clark grew up in Box Hill, east of Melbourne, he rarely missed The Adventures of Robin Hood, a late-afternoon half-hour show on Channel Seven from 1955-60 starring Richard Greene. Ah, the days the hero of Sherwood Forest chased Maid Marian and led his Merry Men through the glen.
According to our John, of Goolwa, now it’s all Lord of the Rings with a character named Legolas, played by Orlando Bloom, helping Frodo Baggins across Middle Earth.
Times have changed, but the impact of the screen cult figures remains; both Robin Hood and Legolas are make-believe heroes with their bow and arrows, and like John’s childhood the JRR Tolkien epics are inspiring nine-year-old boys to take up archery.
Re-run the Lord of the Rings movies and sure enough John’s phone rings with enquiries about joining the Great Southern Archers Club, which has 35 active members based in Strathalbyn, with their indoor competition at the Goolwa Recreation Centre on the first, third and fifth Monday nights.
The trouble, according to John, is that archery – and especially his biggest passion, crossbow competition, which falls under the same sporting umbrella – is mentally challenging with safety a high priority, and your average nine-year-old boy having a five micro-second attention span. It’s different with the nine-year-old girls, he says.
The irony is that John is the real star in all this drama having been Australia’s first-ever international crossbow competitor 30 years ago this year, at the World Championships in Wolverhampton, England, where amazingly, he made his own crossbow equipment, taught himself, trained by himself, and achieved a highly-respectable top-third finish.
“In those days we had nothing in Australia; no equipment or competition,” John said. “It was a proud moment for me in 1984, and fortunately we have since moved on.”
John has been a board member of Archery Australia, which now has more than 100 crossbow competitors, and is currently the secretary general of the World Crossbow Shooting Association.
Adding to his remarkable contribution to the sport of crossbow shooting, John is one of only two people in Australia who makes competition crossbows, with the other being Chris Nunn, in Adelaide.
Of course, unreservedly, this makes John an expert on competition crossbows. Those used for hunting are mainly imported from Canada – and he has the agency as part of his business, Ausbow Industries.
It has been an impressive journey, and John puts it all down to the romanticism of Robin Hood and choosing to adopt a sport that suited him, competing in archery as a young kid and making his first vertical competition bow at 17.
“I tried to establish the sport of crossbow shooting in Australia and New Zealand in 1980s, a time the gear was all self-made or imported from England, which was very expensive,” John said.
“With Tony Kemp, a colleague in New Zealand, we developed a tournament target shooting crossbow – not for hunting – in 1995. After 23 years as a communications engineer with Telstra, I took a package a year later and turned a hobby into a business, making archery and crossbow equipment ever since.
“Personally, I prefer the cross to the vertical bow. The crossbow is not easy to shoot; it is very unforgiving. With the Olympic or vertical bow, if you have a bad release the nature of the bow is that it can compensate to some extent.
“Pull the trigger of a crossbow and the bolt or arrow takes 15 milliseconds to clear, whereas the arrow in a vertical bow is in free air after six inches.
“The good thing about archery in general, and the crossbow is part of that, is you don’t have to be super fit. It requires incredible mental concentration, and for young a lot of kids who feel they cannot play team sport for whatever reason, archery can be ideal. It is good for kids with asthma, particularly with the vertical bow because their chest is being used, just like swimming. They compete against their last or best performance, which appeals to a lot of kids.”
John, who has never used a crossbow for hunting, obviously loves the sport, which has three disciplines – target range, field course with targets set at various distances, and clout, shooting onto a horizontal target. Importantly, you cannot compete without specialised training with an accredited instructor.
The Strathalbyn club provides all the equipment, and it stresses upon newcomers not to buy equipment before getting involved in the sport because there are different needs for various competitions, and basically the rule is “one size does not fit all” – John’s crossbows are crafted based on individual measurements.
With an obvious hint of humility, John believes the disciplines of archery and crossbow competition have been incredibly good to him. The sport has taken him around the world as a competitor; his current world presidency led him to the world championships in Visby, Sweden last year, and mid-year he will venture to Germany for the European titles. But then, there is not a person with a crossbow who would hesitate saying a kind word about our John.