Some archers endure severe tests to their passion, but then stare down adversity and beat it back by shooting their bow. One such fighter is Nicholas Barbato, 14, a Delaware archer who’s battling Tourette syndrome.
How He Got Started
Barbato tried archery in first grade at a Cub Scout camp and got hooked. He soon received his first bow and began shooting in leagues. At age 10 he joined a JOAD program. About the same time, however, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s, which is characterized by uncontrollable motor and vocal tics.
“I have a rapid headshake and swearing,” Barbato said. “The swearing is uncontrollable. I don’t know when it’s going to happen. It just pops up. The head shakes are typically all day.”
Swearing is a new tic for Barbato. His Tourette’s began with head shakes that came and went. As it progressed, the headshakes became persistent and prevented him from doing everyday things.
“I feel pressure like someone is pushing against the sides of my head, Barbato said. “Then it just happens. It ends up hurting, and I get dizzy.”
His headshakes made aiming extremely difficult, but didn’t deter his archery passion or his shooting success.
“I love everything about archery,” Barbato said. “I especially like the competition. I think that’s my favorite part.”
His love of competition helped him succeed in tournaments. Despite his tics, he has finished in the top 10 at national championships and won the State Games of America.
Never Give Up
Barbato shoots in the competitive compound division, which requires near perfection to finish near the top. The rapid headshaking makes precision difficult, but Barbato won’t consider quitting.
If the tics start during a competition he switches bows, adjusts his shooting style, and switches to a trigger release. His coach, Heather Pfeil, developed a “tic bow” to make shooting with the headshakes easier. This bow is set up much like an Olympic recurve, with an unmagnified sight ring and V-bar stabilizers. His sight drifts widely during the tics and often leaves the target. The trigger release lets him time his shots and use a “command” shooting style.
Still, things don’t always go according to plan. The head shakes sometimes cause shots to miss the target. “I go from wanting to win to wanting to finish,” he said. “For me, it’s a big deal if I finish with the tics, because it’s really hard to shoot with them. It boosts my confidence.”
A miss in the compound division is a lost tournament for many archers. But for Barbato, it’s an opportunity to grow.
“What’s the purpose of stopping if you shoot a miss?” he asks. “I have a chance to come back and shoot really well after that miss. I’ve learned not to give up. I’ve given up before when I’ve gotten tics, and it didn’t make me feel good.”
A Hopeful Future
The headshakes, unfortunately, became so violent and frequent this year that Barbato had to put down the bow.
“Before the Tourette’s got really bad, archery helped my tics and calmed my anxiety,” he said. “Now that it’s really bad, it’s been hard to shoot. I really just miss shooting my bow. It’s been hard not to.”
While he takes a break from shooting, Barbato works as a “Teen Ambassador” for the Tourette Association of America to boost awareness about Tourette’s.
“I feel like I understand kids with Tourette’s, and a lot of people don’t,” Barbato said. “I want to help them understand it.”
Barbato can’t wait to get back behind his bow, and he might not have to wait long. Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore recently accepted him into a treatment program that could greatly reduce his symptoms. He hopes the treatment lets him resume shooting this summer.