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Travel Tales Part III: Bows, Arrows, and Sabres

July 16, 2008, 2:04 p.m. (ET)

Airports have gone high tech: machines offer eye scans for identification and air blasters dislodge particles from passengers' bodies to examine them for explosives.  Yet some Olympians check gear that dates back to medieval or prehistoric times: bows, arrows, and sabres. So what happens when old-school meets sci-fi at the check-in counter?

"Most of the time, people think we're golfers," said fencer Tim Morehouse, who drags a long zip-up bag with wheels through the airport.

Instead of clubs, however, Morehouse transports three sabres that measure nearly 3½-feet long with approximately 3-foot long steel blades.

If anyone asks, "We're very careful to say ‘sabre,' not ‘sword," he said. "You don't want to say ‘blades,' either, or you definitely get a different reaction from the crew."

The wrong word could be more problematic than a lost bag. If the sabre case goes missing, Morehouse said, "It's not that big of a deal. You can borrow a sabre. Sabres are all the same. They cost $40 to $50, and blades cost $25."

He only checks in the blades and sabres. The rest he carries on. "You jam the mask in your backpack with fencing shorts, long socks, gloves, and a jacket because it's sized to you.

"The mask gets the most questions," Morehouse said. "Especially when they X-ray it. ‘Is it for beekeeping?'

"We also wear wires that run from the sabre to the fencing machine so it registers electronically when you're hit. The wires look like a plug. People wonder why we carry so many plugs.

"And - this is kind of unique to our men's sabre team - we're known for our toys. We generally bring one or two devices like a massage stick, a ball, or foam rollers. When you're a small sport, you don't have funds for a masseuse, so your masseuse is a stick and a ball.

"I couldn't even get on the plane with a massage stick last time," he lamented. "I just left it."

Brady Ellison, the youngest member of the 2008 Olympic archery team, at 19, also compares his hard-sided equipment container to a golf case. It's 4 feet by 2 feet and 8 inches deep and weighs 48 lbs when fully packed.

Inside, his "recurve" bow is broken down into seven pieces: a set of limbs (the top half and bottom half of the bow), one sight (a device to help aim), one stabilizer (which minimizes vibrations during the arrow's release), two sets of V-bars (which help resist twisting of the hand that holds the bow), and an extension piece (which connects the V-bars to the stabilizer).

If necessary, the pieces would fit it in a school backpack, "but airports aren't exactly easy with equipment, so you want to have spare parts," Ellison said.

Ellison typically packs two bows, places two to three dozen arrows in a separate slot, and tosses his quiver in "wherever it fits." He also puts one or two USA shirts in there, laid flat, in case his clothing bag doesn't make it.  

Another trick of the archery trade: "A lot of times, we'll switch backup bows with a teammate. I've switched with people in the airports," Ellison said. That way, if one case gets lost, both people will still have one bow. "But not all bows are exactly the same shape. It has to be close to fit in the case," he added.

"Luckily I've never lost my bow case on the way to a tournament," he said.

If he had, finding the right arrows would be harder than finding another bow. Each archer shoots arrows of a particular stiffness, and the stiffness is based on the arrow's length (which depends on the archer's height and arm length) and draw weight (the force required to hold a bowstring at full draw, measured in pounds).

 "Say a bow shoots at 40 lbs. If you try to shoot arrows that are off a couple pounds, they'd be too weak or too stiff and not group right on the target," Ellison said.

"I shoot 380 stiffness. A teammate with 380 won't shoot out of my bow, because the arrow is a different length."

"All of my arrows would be a different length than your arrows," Ellison said.

In short, Ellison said, "It's really hard to find someone with the same draw length and arrows that tune out of that bow."

When it comes to airport security, though, Ellison doesn't sweat the arrows. "I don't think they let you bring a bow on a plane," he said. "Risers (bow handles) weigh 3 to 4 lbs and are a big blunt object. I guess they think you could hit some one with it."


This is the third of three articles that examine how Olympians manage to travel with the most unwieldy equipment.


Aimee Berg  is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.