The former ballerina who’s traded barre for bow at the 3D worlds

Kristen Jonhston shooting during the 2022 Rinehart World Archery 3D Championships.

It's fair to say that the world 3D championships, compared to international target archery events, attracts a different type of archer. With an emphasis on unsighted bowstyles – barebow, longbow and traditional – there is intriguing depth in the personalities who have made the journey to Italy for this week’s tournament in Terni.

Kristen Johnston, from North Carolina, took first place at the US trials in the longbow category. She’s here shooting a bow made by Jaco Wessels – who is also here in Italy, shooting for Estonia.

“I shoot this bow because I like the weight and the mass. It’s actually too long for me, I bought it used from a friend. But Jaco has made me a new one, which I’m using as my backup bow,” she says.

The very real link of equipment between bowyer and athlete on the courses in Italy is indicative of the wider sense of community in the discipline. There is a definite sense of self-reliance, perhaps even autonomy, among the archers gathered in Stroncone Meadows.

In the traditional and longbow divisions, archers usually make their arrows.

“My husband and I made this batch together. We’re very picky. They’re actually a very unique combination, they are 5/16 [inch diameter] up front, but they taper down to 9/32, with 70-grain tips,” explains Johnston.

“Making arrows is a learning process. It does help if you understand a bit about engineering and math and those things, and about trajectory and flight. We’ve gotten help from some amazing people but, really, it’s what works best for you.

Early attempts, she continues, with heavy and long shafts saw them die mid-flight before reaching the target: “At 25 yards, they were going vertically down.”

Kirsten Jonhston’s longbow.

Johnson’s journey to the 2022 Rinehart World Archery 3D Championships was eventful – to say the least. She attempted to make the competition three years ago, and in her words, “melted”.

“I tried out at the US trials in London, Kentucky three years ago and the shots were so far that I couldn’t change my sight picture,” she says. “I broke down my entire form afterwards – it took me three years to rebuild it. In that time I had a daughter, my mom ended up with cancer, my dad needed eye surgery and I thought I wasn’t gonna make it to the next trials. But my family, as broken as they were, insisted that I go.”

Now based in Texas, caring for her mother, Kristen gave the selections another shot.

“I went there, I placed top, and now I’m in Italy.”

“I don’t accept defeat in any realm of my life,” she explains. “So my only goal actually was to go to the US trials and do my absolute best. I didn’t care if I won or I lost. I only cared that I conquered my own personal demons.”

The USA is one of five nations in Terni fielding a full team of 24 archers, the maximum allowed.

Very few archers at the world 3D championships are funded in any way, and Kris, like several other North American archers, used the platform GoFundMe to try to raise the huge costs of a trip to Italy.

“I’d been thinking about doing that for three years, and how opposed I was to actually raising money for something that is a sport, as opposed to something that is a need. Because so many people use GoFundMe for actual need – everything from students to car accidents to charities,” she says. Kris eventually decide to try it after discussing it with her coach, para archer Jeremey Velez.

“I had so many people reach out to me saying, ‘we want to help you’.”

Kirsten Johnston on the practice field in Terni.

Johnson has built an online social media presence that’s helped fund her archery career. She’s also a landlord, an apprentice electrician and a level two USA Archery instructor, too. This has all come after another, perhaps more surprising, career.

“I’m a retired ballerina. So archery was already very similar to ballet, in terms of body placement and understanding and precision and the impossible journey to perfection which will never be achieved,” she says.

“But I’m also from the country, I grew up on a farm so hunting and gathering and farming is always something I’ve done. I shot as a kid. I watched Robin Hood. I was obsessed. And then I ended up getting married and he was a compound archer, but he had a left-handed longbow hanging around. And so I ended up shooting that and then I needed my own… and that was about 11 or 12 years ago.”

Kris had a bad car accident in August 1999.

“I died and I came back and they sewed my finger back on and I got out of my wheelchair and I learned how to walk again and talk again and drink a glass of water again,” she says.

“I understand very much how wonderful it is to actually even be here, much less be shooting sticks with other sticks.”

Johnston is shooting for a world title with her longbow this week. The bowstyle isn’t often featured on the world stage – this is the only event sanctioned by World Archery at which it appears – and, while the opportunity to compete in a championship is not lost on the field in Terni, it’s paired with a refreshing sense of camaraderie.

“I’m epecting to have the time of my life here. I’ve met archers today that I have just idolised for years” says Kris, pointing out Encarna Garrido Lazaro of Spain and reigning World Games Champion Cinzia Noziglia. “Every breath is amazing, so that makes everything beyond that even more epic. I’m at the top right now.”