Joe and Helen Thornton were world-class archers long before the sport was adopted into the Olympics.
The married couple are native to the area, with Joe growing up in Adair County, and Helen in Fort Gibson. Since taking up archery in the 1960s, though, the pair have traveled the world, bringing home archery trophies in their wake.
The couple spoke to a crowd gathered at Go Ye Village Tuesday afternoon, recounting their experiences and sharing memories.
“As a boy, I had an Indian bow I’d made myself, when me and my friends at Chilocco Indian School would cut out and go hunting,” said Joe. “But I didn’t really get into archery until the late 1950s. I had a guy who got me interested in archery, and I started shooting in tournaments around the state. Before too long, I was winning state championships.”
In 1960, Joe, then 46, competed in a national tournament, shooting 16 points away from a world’s record.
“So, when tryouts for [the U.S. Archery Team] for the world championships came around, I decided to go try out,” he said. “I made the team and won the gold medal in the World Championships held in Oslo, Norway.”
After returning to the U.S., Joe found himself somewhat a celebrity.
“I got a lot publicity,” he said. “I got invited to be on a CBS show in New York City called ‘To Tell The Truth,’ and Johnny Carson was on the panel.”
The following year, Joe took the world championship again at the British International Championship in Windsor, England.
Back in Tahlequah, word of his fame as an archer was spreading, which is how he met Helen, who would later become his wife and archery companion.
Helen, who was involved with the local Boy Scout troop, said the boys had taken up archery, and she felt she needed to know more about it.
“My family shot with bows, and I figured if this guy, Joe, was a world champion, he could help me find the perfect bow for me to use,” said Helen.
“I had never shot before in my life. Anyway, Joe learned that we had an indoor shooting range where I lived in Fort Gibson, and began coming over and giving me lessons. He taught me how to shoot the right way, and I got pretty good.”
Six months after firing off her first arrow, she competed and made the U.S. Women’s Archery Team in 1963.
“Helen and I had both been practicing, and we both made the teams who competed in Helsinki, Finland,” said Joe. “I took the silver medal, and Helen helped the women’s team win the world championship. In 1965, we wound up both being No. 1 on our respective teams, and traveled to Sweden. I won the silver medal, and again, Helen helped the women take that championship.”
Over the next few years, the pair continued to compete – and win – at international archery contests. Both have been inducted into the Oklahoma Archery Hall of Fame; Joe was inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame.
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