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Mastering the mouth shot

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Noah Kidwell finds way to compete despite limitations

By Chris Leach

Noah Kidwell, a member of the Anderson County archery team, hits targets and interacts with teammates just like every other member of the team.

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The only difference between him and his teammates is how he shoots the arrow.

“It’s sort of in reverse of what a normal archer does,” head coach Dave Frederick said of Kidwell’s approach.

When watching Kidwell shoot on a range or in a competition, it becomes obvious pretty quickly what’s different about Kidwell’s shot. He shoots the arrow with his mouth, with the help of a homemade mouthpiece Kidwell made himself.

The mouthpiece, also called a bite guard, is made out of seatbelt material. Kidwell has experimented with bite guards made from cat collars, leather, ping-pong rubber and other materials in the past, but he’s found recently that seatbelt material is the easiest on his teeth and allows him to release the arrow more efficiently.

“It gives him a little bit more surface area to bite between his teeth,” Frederick said.

Kidwell starts every one of his shots by biting onto the bite guard, which secures the arrow right underneath his bottom lip and above his chin.

After clamping onto the bite guard, Kidwell will push the bow forward with his right hand instead of pulling the arrow back with his strong hand like the rest of his teammates.

After Kidwell pushes the bow forward and aims at his target, he released the bite guard from his mouth, sending the arrow to the target. Kidwell repeats this process for every arrow he shoots, something he’s been doing since the fourth grade.

“It didn’t take me very long to learn it,” Kidwell said.

Kidwell’s shooting style is unique, and often catches the eyes of competitors and rival coaches. Frederick has opposing coaches come up to him all the time, telling him what a great competitor Kidwell is while also wondering why Kidwell shoots with his mouth.

Kidwell doesn’t shoot arrows with his mouth to try something new, he shoots it that way because he has to. Kidwell has very little strength in his left arm, and he’s not strong enough to hold the bow with his left hand and shoot with his right.

Kidwell’s weakness on his left side was a result of an arterial venous malformation Kidwell suffered from back when he was 3 years old. An arterial venous malformation is simply a brain bleed, or “a cousin of a stroke” as Kidwell’s surgeon put it at the time of the event.

“It left him – the day before, a perfectly normal little kid running around, after that he’s had challenges ever since,” Chris Kidwell, Noah’s father, said.

Noah’s mini-stroke has also caused some problems with his eyesight. Noah’s vision has always been weak according to his father, but in 2017, Noah was diagnosed with homonymous hemianopia, which doctors believe was a result of the arterial venous malformation Noah had when he was 3.

Homonymous hemianopia is a condition where a person can only see one-half of the world from each eye. Noah’s left field of vision is affected from the condition, meaning that the entire right half of his eyesight is gone.

“Last summer, we saw a specialist at the University of Louisville and she gave my wife and I a pair of glasses to try on, and it had some sort of film or something to black out – that basically immolated what he was seeing,” Chris said. “It’s just crazy to think that he walks around and does what he does that way.”

Noah’s left-side weakness prohibited him from participating in the popular sports growing up, such as football, basketball and baseball.

However, when Noah was in the fourth grade, one of his teachers at Emma B. Ward Elementary, Lourdes Oster, introduced Noah to archery, thinking that Noah had the potential to be able to compete alongside his classmates.

In Noah’s early stages of his archery career, he shot the arrow just like the rest of his teammates: pulling the arrow back with his right arm while holding the bow with his left.

Noah struggled to hold the bow in a stable position with his left arm, and his scores were very low as a result. It was then that Oster introduced Kidwell to shooting the arrow with his mouth, and his scores began to soar.

Noah’s initial score with both of his arms was an 18, but shooting the arrow with his mouth helped increase his score well above 100. When Noah was an eighth grader, he was shooting at his best and even placed third in the 3D State competition.

During that span in elementary and middle school, Noah also had to deal with the challenge of losing his primary teeth. Every other kid during that time was losing their primary teeth also, but it didn’t affect their archery scores.

However, since Noah shot the arrow from his mouth, he would often have to adjust his grip or where he placed the bite guard in his mouth as a result of random pockets of no teeth while growing up.

“I just had to move to one tooth, put it back further in my mouth,” Noah said.

Since the eighth grade, Noah’s score hasn’t been the same due to occasional seizures.

Seizures are a side effect to Noah’s disability, and they really weren’t a problem until Noah outgrew his dosage when he transitioned from middle to high school, Chris believes.

Noah currently is on two anti-seizure medicines, and he occasionally has to skip practices and tournaments if he is feeling bad on any given day.

With all that Noah goes through, he still shows up to every practice that he can, and he’s shown improvement this season according to his head coach. His best score this season is in the 270s, and he’s shown more consistency this season compared to past seasons.

“I’ve seen an improvement in Noah the last couple of weeks,” Frederick said. “He seems like he’s focused a little more and getting better groups on the bullseye.”

While improving his scores is a goal for Noah, he and his father are appreciative that he’s able to find a way to compete with his disability. Archery has given him an opportunity to compete and interact with other kids, something that might not of seemed possible when Noah was a young child.

“It’s great to be able to see him do things that other kids are doing,” Chris said. “It’s probably given him a little more sense of normalcy growing up.”

Noah’s interest in archery has also spilled over with his family. No one in Noah’s family had a major interest in archery until Noah tried it, and now Noah shoots with his father and siblings on occasion, but no one is able to beat him.

“His little brother kind of had that moment of ‘if Noah could do it with one good arm, I could surely do this and be better than him,’ and he couldn’t,” Chris said.

Chris is appreciative of Anderson County’s archery program, and that they’ve welcomed Noah with open arms.

Frederick says Noah is a pleasure to have on the team, saying he never causes any issues and is always inspiring due to all he’s been through.

Noah has been through a lot, certainly more than most of the archers he’ll compete against in tournament. However, in archery, it’s not about what you’ve been through, it’s about giving kids a chance to compete in a sport they love, and that’s what makes archery a great fit for Noah.

“It just really broadens your perspective on how resilient kids can be if giving opportunities or different ways to do things,” Chris said.