A series of circumstances — both of the uncontrollable and controllable variety — brought “Grandma Luge” to South Dakota.
Two hurricanes, a job offer and an Olympic dream.
Either way, Anne Abernathy — one of the most experienced athletes in Winter Olympics history — is in Yankton. And she’s loving it.
“I couldn’t have planned this,” Abernathy said during a recent interview at the NFAA Easton Yankton Archery Center.
And yet, here she is, pursuing a lofty — though not all that entirely unrealistic — goal: The 65-year-old Abernathy — a native of St. Thomas, a part of the U.S. Virgin Islands — wants to qualify for the 2020 Summer Olympics in the sport of archery.
In her case, she knows what it’s going to take.
Abernathy has previously competed in six Winter Olympics in the sport of luge (which is where her nickname stems from). She holds the record for being the oldest woman to compete in the Winter Olympics — she broke the record during the 2002 Games — and in 2006 became the first woman over the age of 50 to qualify.
Now, over a decade later, she’s on to a new stage.
“This is more like the third or fourth stage in my career,” Abernathy said.
She moved to Yankton to work and train at the archery complex — the largest of its kind in the world — and to serve as assistant archery coach at Mount Marty College. Abernathy is also pursuing a master’s degree at Mount Marty, through the school’s new Master of Education in Coaching Leadership track.
At a time when many Olympic athletes are deciding to retire, Abernathy began her career.
She was 33 when she qualified for her first Winter Olympics, in 1988. That was, she pointed out, the same year that the Jamaican bobsled team garnered international attention — it was later portrayed in the film “Cool Runnings.”
Abernathy’s career then saw her qualify for the Winter Olympics in 1992, 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006.
It was ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics that her goal of becoming an Olympic Archer began.
She began writing about the history of the Olympics and how each sport has changed through the years. The first subject was aquatics (swimming, diving, water polo, etc.), which she turned into an electronic book. Next came athletics (track and field, etc.), and then came archery.
“I remember reading that the oldest woman to ever win a gold medal in archery was 63,” Abernathy said. “And I thought, ‘Hmmm.’”
At the time, she was still undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a cancer of the lymph nodes), but said she remembers feeling a spark inside her: Archery could become her new pursuit.
“It got me out of my bed and gave me a goal to shoot for,” Abernathy said. “I always tell people, I didn’t pick archery; archery picked me.”
There have been other obstacles in her athletic career, including a brain injury, 12 knee surgeries and other broken bones. The drive to return to athletics is what helped during those trying times, Abernathy said.
“Sports have always gotten me through my struggles,” she said. “They’ve been my driving force.”
Archery happened to be a sport she was familiar with: Abernathy said she had taken archery courses while in college at the University of Texas. Her experiences with previous Olympics (though of the Winter variety) also certainly helped, she said.
“I knew what it’d take to qualify,” Abernathy said.
From there, she put together a business plan of the necessary steps toward her goal — training, requirements and starting an archery federation in St. Thomas.
“The biggest thing was finding a coach,” Abernathy said.
Representing the Virgin Islands, she came close to qualifying for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, but Abernathy then began thinking about 2020.
Mother Nature’s Wrath
The eventual path to Yankton involved a pair of natural disasters.
Two Category 5 hurricanes (Irma and Maria) ravaged St. Thomas — an island in the Caribbean Sea — in September 2017, and wiped out the island’s archery program, Abernathy said.
The archery field where Abernathy and youth participants practiced was used as a debris dump and as temporary modules for damaged schools, she said.
“I didn’t have anywhere to train,” Abernathy said.
So, if she was going to seriously pursue her dream of becoming an Olympic archer, Abernathy wouldn’t be able to stay in St. Thomas.
“Mentally, it took a lot to leave,” she said. “And with the hurricanes, that takes a toll on you, mentally, too. It was bad back home.”
St. Thomas is still recovering from the hurricanes to the point that it may take a full decade, she said.
“Our main business is tourism,” Abernathy said. “We had 10 three-to-five star hotels, and only one survived. And we don’t have many flights coming in anymore, because there’s nowhere to stay.”
‘Where The Heck Is Yankton?’
For Abernathy to follow her dream, she knew she’d have to leave her home.
It was about that time that she became aware of an opening for an assistant programs director position at the Easton Yankton Archery Complex.
“I saw Yankton and thought, ‘Where the heck is Yankton?’” Abernathy said.
She was in Colombia, South America, for the Pan American Championships in August when she was officially offered the position, and she immediately accepted. By early September, Abernathy was in Yankton.
“I won’t lie, I miss home, but I’m enjoying myself here,” she said. “My philosophy has always been, enjoy wherever you are, because you never know what’s coming next.”
What’s next for Abernathy, she hopes, is the 2020 Summer Olympics, and it’ll be because of the training opportunities she has in Yankton, she said.
While at the Easton Yankton Archery Center, Abernathy has been training with coach Josahan Jaime-Santacruz (a Level 4 coach and the Archery & Coaching programs director). It’s the ideal location for her to train, according to Abernathy.
“Coach Jos is one of the best archery coaches out there, no doubt about it,” Abernathy said. “In my first few days here, she caught something in my form that nobody else had ever caught. And it’s made a huge difference for me.”
There have been other adjustments in her month in South Dakota as well, she added. Among them: Abernathy had to acclimate herself to Yankton.
“It’s not so much the change in the size of the town, because I lived on a small island; it’s that I’ve been around water all my life,” she said.
Yes, Yankton has the Missouri River and Lewis & Clark Lake, but it’s not quite the same as waking up every morning near the Caribbean Sea.
The local culture more than makes up for it though, Abernathy said.
“The thing I’ve noticed here is that the people are so genuinely nice,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect. But it’s so much more welcoming than I expected.”
She’s also realizing that there’s plenty to do in her position at the archery center, Abernathy added.
“I’m having a blast here,” she said. “There’s always something going on at the center here.”
Abernathy is working with archers of all skill levels (from youth on up to adults), as well as archers from Mount Marty and the University of South Dakota (its archers use the facility).
“It’s been fun to be able to work with people of all ages and levels,” she said.
Abernathy also said she hopes to someday bring archers from the Virgin Islands to Yankton to train or to compete in various international tournaments — she had hoped to bring a group to the World Archery Indoor Championships, which were held in Yankton back in February.
Though she’s currently recuperating from a slight knee injury, Abernathy plans to resume her training for the 2020 Summer Olympics. Her first qualifying event will come next April in Chile, she said.
“I believe I can do it, but even if I don’t, I’m still going to have some fun trying,” Abernathy said.
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