There was that point, in 2001, when Jennifer Nichols faced the decision so many young athletes face: move to a training center, complete with a brilliant, seasoned coach, to pursue an Olympic dream. Or stay home, draw from the elite coaching only occasionally, and wonder whether the dream can be fulfilled anyway.
Nichols was just 17 at the time, and the chance of becoming an Olympic archer -- a pursuit she continues this week at the U.S. archery trials in Mason, Ohio -- seemed far-off and fanciful. Leave home? It just didn't seem right. Leaving would mean parting with her parents and her four younger sisters and brothers.
For Nichols, those prospects seemed more daunting than they would to a typical teenager who might, say, head off to college. She is, by nature and upbringing, a homebody, because for the Nichols family of Cheyenne, Wyo., home is a way of life.
"I was afraid I was going to have to go," Nichols, 20, said recently. "But I think that there are three things that really go into being a very good athlete. One is lots of practice. The second is technique and being technically ready. But the third -- and I think the most important one -- is the support system."
There is no greater support system, Nichols believes, than her father, Brent, her mother, Cheryl, and her siblings. The Nichols travel the country to support Jenny and her younger sister Mandy -- at 17, the top junior archer in the nation -- because that family support cuts to the core of their beliefs. Deeply Christian, Nichols will pray between shots, between matches, because that is what she has been brought up to do, and that is what she believes put her in her present position -- as perhaps the best female archer in the nation.
"When you talk to Jenny, it's very clear why she's shooting," Brent Nichols said. "She gives the glory first to God, then to us, her family, and then to the United States."
It is the rare American Olympian who can recall her training days as Nichols can: waking up, heading downstairs for breakfast, attending school in another room in her own house, where her mother provided the lesson of day. Then tending to chores, and bolting out to the back yard for physical education -- archery.
All five Nichols children are home-schooled, taught by Cheryl.
"When we started home-schooling years ago, it was just starting to get off the ground [nationally]," Brent Nichols said. "My wife looked into it, and we talked about it and read literature, and we thought it would be the right step for us.
"The reason is, number one, our beliefs. We do not like what, basically, is left out in the public schools. You can teach evolution, but you can't teach creation. You can't have prayer, even though our government and country are founded on freedom of religion. There's peer pressure. You can go on."
Given her background in home-schooling -- one which she thoroughly enjoyed, she said -- Jennifer Nichols worried some when her potential became more recognizable. In 2001, she won the junior national target championship, and she caught the eye of Alexander Kirillov, the former coach of the Soviet Union's national team. Kirillov, experienced and wise, expressed a desire to work with both Jennifer and Mandy. Their father wasn't sure, for the coach was based in Tucson, more than 1,000 miles from Cheyenne.
"I told him I didn't know if I could take that much time away from work," Brent Nichols said. "He said, 'Don't worry. I will be their poppa.' "
So the cycle began, the best of both worlds. Jennifer received the world-class training she needed to prepare for the Olympics by traveling to work with Kirillov once a month, yet got to remain at home with her family the rest of the time. She graduated from high school -- in her own house -- in 2002. She has, for now, eschewed college to concentrate on her sport.
"It was the right thing to do," Kirillov said. "I told Jenny, 'Let's think about the big things. You will not have enough time to be good student and to be great archer.' She is a really serious person, and she dedicates her time. And her family gives her so much support."
The family does nearly everything together. They take dance lessons, and Jennifer is now accomplished enough to teach some herself. They go hunting, though Jennifer hasn't taken the required safety courses, so she totes her camera and follows her father and brother, 13-year-old Alex, along on trips to bag deer.
And, for the last decade, they have shot arrows together. The sport, Jennifer and Brent said, brings them even closer. It allows Jennifer and Mandy to work together, to support each other, and to incorporate their religious beliefs into their passion. There is no overstating how important Christianity is to the Nichols. When the girls are shooting at home at their targets, a full 70 meters away, they frequently attach index cards, printed with Bible verses, to their quivers. As they walk to retrieve their arrows, they memorize the scripture.
The passages "give them peace, and they draw strength from that," Brent Nichols said. "It's something they decided to do on their own. . . . They make parenting very easy. We attribute it to home-schooling. We attribute it to their relationship with Christ, the family values we try to instill in them. Jenny's probably as close to a perfect child -- and I'm not just saying this because I'm her father -- as anybody can have."
Jennifer was the top-ranked woman after Thursday's round-robin matches cut the field to eight. (Her sister Mandy was eliminated on the first day of competition.) Jennifer -- who sometimes competes against women 10 to 20 years older -- is surprised she has advanced so far so quickly, that she has a chance to win the trials, to earn a medal at the Olympics. "I think, I hope, if nothing happens with her health and with her equipment, she will be No. 1 in Athens," Kirillov said. Yet when she thinks about who is behind her this week -- her family, who will be there, and her faith -- it makes more sense to her.
"I really believe that God has given me every ounce of ability and confidence that I have," Nichols said. "I believe that He is the one who will provide me with the peace and the confidence that I need to accomplish the goal that I'm setting out to do.
"As needed, I'll pray before I'm shooting, and then after I make a shot, and I'm waiting for the other person to shoot, I turn my thoughts toward God. I think of His goodness, and how He's just blessed me so much. He's so faithful. When I submit my cares and worries to His hands, He takes care of them. That probably fills my thoughts more than anything else."