Nobody at the Gun Rack in Aiken, SC, knows anything about archer Garrett Abernethy—not that he’s competing in the Olympics, not even that he’s from their same town.
“We don’t do arrows,” the manager of the store tells me, in a tone that’s curt but not impolite. “We tend to sell, you know—guns.”
Aiken is decently sized for the south-eastern part of the state—known for annual steeplechase races, which attract thousands of tourists, and there’s a college, USC Aiken, where incidentally the young Abernethy is a student. But it’s only home to about 30,000 people. I assumed a 19-year-old Olympian would stand out.
“Well, I’m not really from here,” the manager explains. “I only moved here from Miami about seven years ago.”
“Right. Well this would have been recent news.”
He clears his throat. “Try Hootie’s.”
Hootie’s is a hunting and fishing outlet off Jefferson Davis Highway, technically in the smaller nearby town of Clearwater. Google Street View shows a nondescript, ’70s-style storefront, squat but wide, beige with faded orange awnings and a big wooden sign of a cartoon owl. Behind the lot is an overgrown bosk filled with birches and pines.
The man who picks up sounds breathless, like he’s been running. This is Donald Myers, a 16-year-old sales clerk. “No, I don’t know him. But I’ve heard of him,” Donald says. “People talk about him sometimes.”
“Oh yeah? What do they say about him?”
“Just what you’d expect. That he’s good. That he’s going to the Olympics.”
“Have you ever met him?” I ask.
“I expect he gets his stuff on the ‘net,” Donald says.
Donald’s sentences are fast and clipped, ferried along by a flat low mumble. He has an odd, slightly robotic way of not providing more information than what is specifically requested. I ask him how long he’s been working at Hootie’s, a store that specializes in selling lethal weapons. “Four years,” he says.
“You’ve worked there since you were 12? Wow, I didn’t know that was legal.”
“Yeah,” he says, sounding proud of it. Donald explains he works while going to school to help support his family, but that he also enjoys being around all the equipment. Donald’s an archer himself, and even uses a compound bow similar to the one used by Garrett Abernethy. Donald often takes trips with his friends up to the forests in Richland, SC, to hunt wild turkey and deer.
“Doesn’t really matter what time of day it is. You just got to get out there, and… wait. Sometimes it takes a long time.”
“Isn’t it kind of gruesome?”
“There’s places that clean up the meat for you. They’re pretty reasonable.”
I ask him if he might have any Olympic ambitions of his own.
“Doubt I’d ever make it,” Donald says. He plans to attend nearby Clemson University—while continuing to work, of course. “I’m not into it like some other people. It’s just something I like to do. It’s just, you know—” He sighs, as though it pains him to say it. “It’s fun, I guess.”
Justine Molnar, 23, works as a pharmacist at the Rite Aid on Belair Road in Perry Hall, Md., a suburb of Baltimore. It’s near the end of the day when I call about two local Taekwondo champions, Richard and Gene Yang—brothers from Perry Hall High School, both of whom are competing in July for the American team. She says she doesn’t know what I’m talking about, but doesn’t mind talking for a while.
“I guess Taekwondo isn’t all that popular in Perry Hall, huh?” I say.
“Not really. I mean—I like it. But not too many other people do.”
“Wait, you practice Taekwondo?”
“Since I was eight.”
I normally just stay around here and hang out with friends. There’s the mini-golf course, there’s the movies, there’s the mall.
Turns out Justine also graduated from the same high school as the Yang brothers. “They must be really good,” she says. “Much better than me. I like it because it’s different. You really let your energy out on the mat. But the type that I do is more for self-defense on the street. You learn how to defend yourself if someone was trying to mug you or something like that.”
Is Perry Hall a rough place to live?
“It’s getting worse here,” she says. “But don’t get me wrong. It’s a good place. Not too overwhelming. I’ve lived here my whole life.”
I ask if she ever ventures into Baltimore.
“You mean the city?” she says, sounding a little repulsed. “No, I normally just stay around here and hang out with friends. There’s the mini-golf course, there’s the movies, there’s the mall.”
“That actually doesn’t sound like such a small town,” I say.
She laughs. “Like I said. It’s getting worse.”
Parker, Texas, a distant, well-to-do suburb of Dallas, is known for only a few things. There’s Southfork Ranch, where the famous, aerial-shot opening of Dallas was filmed. There’s Nastia Liukin, a local 23-year-old who earned more medals in the 2008 Olympics than any other American gymnast, and who will represent the United States again this summer. And there’s Jacob’s Reward Farm, where Cindy Telisak, proprietor, picks up on the first ring.
“Nastia?” she says. Cindy is 54 and couldn’t be friendlier. “Oh sure. She lives a couple of streets over. My husband and daughter met her when they did that big parade a few years ago.”
“There was a parade?”
“Yeah, she came back last time with all those medals. I think she sat on the back of a convertible. Held some flowers. There’s photos on the internet, I think.”
Cindy and her family have lived in Parker for the past eight years, raising alpacas and sheep on a four-and-a-half acre farm. She sells the harvested fiber and wool, and gives lessons on sewing, knitting, and crocheting—mostly to people from Dallas, she says, who are looking to spend a day outside the city.
Are people in Parker excited to see Nastia Liukin in the Olympics again?
“I haven’t heard much, but I may just not be in those loops,” she tells me. “We’re pretty spread out here, and there’s not many places to congregate.” Parker is made up of mostly farmland, Cindy says, though in the past few years there’s been a fair number of upscale housing developments built. “It was definitely a little less pretentious a while back. Lately it’s becoming more desirable.”
Cindy says it isn’t all bad, though; she likes having neighbors. “I’m going to have to keep an eye on the news to see how Nastia does. My interest is piqued.”