On a recent weekday afternoon, Anne Abernathy is navigating a set of stairs at the Bull Run Public Shooting Center in Centreville, Va. With one hand on the railing and the other on a cane, Abernathy slowly picks her way down the steps leading to the subterranean archery range.This isn’t exactly what you expect to witness when you’re meeting an Olympic hopeful. But then, the Virginia woman isn’t your average athlete.
“I’m 60 years old,” Abernathy says. “I’m not a young pup at this”
But there are other issues beside her age and the recent knee operation that makes her hobble around. Abernathy is a total beginner at this sport. She picked up archery only 14 months ago.
“I only know how to train for the Olympics. I don’t know how to do something recreational.”
And so it is that Abernathy, a sexagenarian archery novice, has her sights set on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. If she makes it, she will likely be the oldest competitor in the games. But it won’t be the first time.
Abernathy is a six-time Olympian — a fact she will tell you many times in the course of a conversation. She represented her adopted home of the U.S. Virgin Islands in the sliding sport of luge and wears a gold necklace featuring the Olympic rings as a constant reminder. At the time of her first Olympics — the 1988 Calgary Games — Abernathy was 34. She went on to compete in Albertville, Lillehammer, Nagano, Salt Lake City and Torino.
She’s not kidding about that. Since taking up luge in the ’80s, Abernathy has had 19 knee operations and a smattering of other surgeries. She’s had countless head injuries, and she’s even broken her back. With that in mind, archery seems like a safer option.
“Here’s one of the problems I have, and it’s from the back injury: if I’m shooting 144 arrows in a day, the elbow bends more and more and more when it needs to be straight out,” she explained.
To understand Abernathy’s obsession with the Olympics, and with sport in general, you have to know a little something about her upbringing. She was born in Florida to a father in the Air Force and a mother who didn’t think it was appropriate for girls to play sports.
“I loved playing softball, but my mom wouldn’t let me,” she said. “I wasn’t allowed to do any sports in school. I could swim. I was allowed to swim and play tennis.”
Decades later, Abernathy discovered luge during a trip to Lake Placid. At the 1980 Winter Olympic venue, Abernathy and some friends watched the sliders fly down the track. Soon, a luge coach sidled up to them.
“He said [if] anyone wants to try it, [then] take a step forward. And immediately, 18 people took a step back and I was a little slower than the others. And I was there and I turned to the guy next to me, and we looked at each other and we said, why not?”
And so began Anne Abernathy’s 20-year luge career. She never medaled at the Olympics, but she did get to travel to competitions around the world. Over the years, she picked up a nickname: Grandma Luge.
At the Bull Run shooting range, Abernathy is working with a fellow Olympian to hone her newfound archery skills. Ruth Rowe competed in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles as a member of the U.S. archery team and the pair make a perfect combo. They bicker and tease like an old married couple. And they have their own way of communicating.
“Ruth will see me across the room and she’ll say ‘steer,’” Abernathy said. “And everybody goes, ‘What?’ And what she means is use the same muscles that I use to steer with. So we have our own language that we were able to pick up by combining both of the sports. And it got me to World Cup last year within my first 12 months.“
“Why are you trying to aim?” Rowe says. “Blank bail, you don’t aim.”
“I know,” Abernathy says. “It just doesn’t feel right unless I do aim at something.”
“I’m looking,” Abernathy says.
The 66-year-old Rowe seems to understand her student’s particular set of challenges. She’s had to adjust the way Abernathy shoots because the former luger can no longer fully straighten her right arm. But Rowe believes in her.
“She has the discipline of training,” Rowe says. “She has the experience in high-level competition. She knows how to handle herself mentally.”
“There Is No Not Making It”
But what might make Abernathy’s march toward Rio even harder than it already is is the fact that she’s low on cash. Unlike many other Olympic hopefuls who ink sponsorship deals with shoe or car or yogurt companies, Abernathy has to find the money to compete. Olympic training is not cheap.
“It’s a massive expense, and I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to get there,” she said. “I’m getting there on a shoestring right now. I’m hoping that someone will jump on board and help me get there. When I got to my last Olympics in luge I literally got there one t-shirt at a time.“
To that end, Abernathy was until recently couchsurfing at a friend’s house in Falls Church, Va. to cut down on expenses. Then a couple weeks ago, a family in nearby Vienna “adopted” the Olympian, allowing her to stay in their house rent-free while she trains with Ruth Rowe at Bull Run.
It’s just one of many sacrifices Abernathy is making to hit the bull’s-eye on this particular dream.
I asked her what happens if she doesn’t make it.
“I don’t even think that way,” she said. “That’s not — my brain doesn’t even — I don’t know how to answer that question because there is no not making it.”
The World Archery Finals, which will help determine who goes to the Rio Games will be held in Lausanne, Switzerland in September.