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Queen of the Ringers

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Joan Elmore shows her world championship form as she practices pitching horseshoes on the backyard clay court that her husband James, left, built for her. Notice the beads above the parking sign that are used for keeping score of points.

Ken Beck / The Wilson Post

Mt. Juliet’s Joan Elmore notches third horseshoes world title 

By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

MT. JULIET -- Beyond the silver hair, blue eyes and petite 5-foot-2 frame of Mt. Juliet’s Joan Elmore lurks a competitor every bit as fierce as Michael Jordan, Brett Favre and Tiger Woods.

Elmore’s sports arena is not on a basketball court, football field or golf course but on the horseshoe court. A 30-foot-long stretch of turf with a pit of clay at each end serves as her dueling ground where the southpaw flings her curved 2-pound, 8-ounce chunks of steel at 15-inch-high stakes. Relentlessly, she pursues ringer after ringer.

On Aug. 8 in Springfield, Ill., Elmore won her third National Horseshoe Pitchers Association World Championship title. Six days earlier, she became the first Tennessee woman to become a member of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association Hall of Fame. Horsing around

According to the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association, the sport of horseshoe pitching is an ancient one, going back to the Roman Empire when soldiers pitched discarded horseshoes that came from the hooves of horses used to drive their chariots.

It’s estimated about 15 million people play the game in the U.S. and Canada.

A family sport, horseshoe pitching is one of the few sports that has a national champion for men, women, boys and girls and can still be played in the backyard.

ScoringA ringer, a horseshoe that encircles the stake, can score three points. However, if both players have a ringer, they cancel each other out.

A shoe that comes to rest six inches or closer to the stake has a value of one point.  Length of games

There are three options: 1: Point limit: A game can be played to a pre-determined number of points. Forty points is a suggested amount. The first contestant to reach 40 points or more wins. 2: Shoe limit: The game is played to a pre-determined even number of shoes. Forty or 50 shoes is a suggested amount. When that number is reached, the contestant with the highest score is the winner. 3: Point limit or shoe limit: For example, 40 points or 50 shoes, whichever comes first.

Tennessee pitchers

The Tennessee Horseshoe Pitchers Association, a division of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association, numbers about 130 members. They play yearly tournaments, including state singles, state doubles and indoor championship among nine participating courts located in Algood, Caryville, Clarksville, Crossville, Elizabethon, Harrogate, Rock Springs, Soddy-Daisy and White Pine, Tenn.

For more information, go online to www.tnhorseshoepitching.com and www.horseshoepitching.com.

“I’m pooped,” says the queen of the ringers, 60, last week while sitting in a swing in the shade of a backyard tree. “The last three days of the championship I had to play 19 games. I pitched about 1,400 shoes. Normally, I take a couple of weeks off after the championship.”

This hot August afternoon, she wears white Reeboks, white ankle socks, denim shorts and an aqua-colored shirt that reads “Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, Elmore” across her back along with two embroidered horseshoes.

A red and white sign near the end of the Elmore driveway stands in front of the 40-foot-long clay horseshoe court built by James, Joan’s husband of 43 years. The sign proclaims: “Horseshoes pitching players parking only. All others will be shoeed.”

For a world champion, Joan remains a calm, humble sportswoman with a quick smile, but she takes pride in her game. She finished the recent world tournament with a 19-1 record and averaged 85 percent ringers (8½ out of every 10 tosses encircled the stake). She has pitched four perfect games (every toss a ringer) and holds the world record of 52 consecutive ringers. She holds numerous other world championship play records, including the longest game pitched in a 40-point battle that ran about 90 minutes.

On Sept. 12 in Crossville, Joan seeks her 11th Tennessee state singles title, and she has only participated in the game for 13 years.

“I played no sports at Clarkrange High School. We only had basketball, and I was too short,” said the Fentress County native, who grew up in the Davidson community. She and James have lived in Mt. Juliet for the past 27 years where they raised daughters Karen and Christa and now boast a 2-year-old grandson, Alexander, who can holler, “Ringer, Nanny.”

Joan, a retired administrative assistant for the Tennessee Department of Health, is a member of the Mt. Juliet Church of God. She and James share two dogs and a cat. She loves caring for her grandson, cooking and rooting for the Chicago Cubs. But when it comes to horseshoes, she's got game, and nothing stands in her way. She pitched her first shoe in December 1996.

“My youngest daughter, Christa, played softball for Mt. Juliet. When she went to college, I didn’t have anything to do,” Joan explained. “I read about the horseshoe courts in Joelton. I went over the first time to watch. I went back and joined. I loved it immediately. I had never really played before, maybe only at family picnics.

Horseshoe pitching contest at Wilson County Fair

A partners pitch contest takes place at 1 p.m. Saturday at Fiddlers Grove. Registration is at noon. Entry fee is $5 per person. For more information, call Tommy Bradley at 758-0054.

“I knew that I could do it. I had an eye for it. I had to pitch 100 shoes to qualify and immediately I went into the A class. I was serious from the very beginning. I wanted to be in the championship class as soon as possible. It wasn’t very long. Someone didn’t show up in a championship division, and they asked me. I was hungry. I wanted more. I have a competitive streak in me,” she said with spark in her voice.

James built the horseshoes court, just outside the back door of their house, in 1998.

“I seen right then that if she was gonna get ready, she was going to need her own practice court,” said Joan’s mate, who doesn't compete in the sport.

There are a variety of styles as well as variety of horseshoes used by the players of this recreational sport.

“I take one step and my shoe flips one time, a smooth easy follow-through style,” said Joan of her pitching form. “You have to be dedicated to being your best. It calls for practice and a mindset to focus only on your pitch, and you have to have some natural ability.”

Her basic strategy is to make a ringer with every pitch, a skill that she performs better than anyone in the world, although ladies compete from 30 feet while men pitch at the stake from 40 feet.

The horseshoes may weigh up to 2 pounds and 10 ounces. Most players prefer the Snyder Easy Flip horseshoe, but Joan’s offensive weapon of choice carries the Imperial Original brand. Why?

“Because they’re the shoes I started with. It must work. I’ve won three world titles with them,” she said. This year’s world title also included $4,000 in prize money.

She prepares hard over the six weeks previous to the world championships.

“I’ll toss 200 shoes every morning and 200 more in the evening,” Joan said about her two-a-day, 90-minute workouts.

About 300 women enter the open and senior women categories at the world championships. Competition runs for six days. The first three days are qualifying rounds, and the top 20 competitors continue over the final three days.

“We’re very serious during the games. I don’t see the people (in the grandstands) when I’m playing, but I know where James is sitting,” Joan said. “I’ve been in some extremely long games. I threw 142 shoes in one game.”

“The competition is fierce at the world championships. It usually ends up in a playoff,” James said. “I kind of have a coaching role. I put her back in line when she has a habit of getting faster and faster and starts pitching to the front of the stake, but she doesn’t really need any help.”

Joan has entered 12 world championships and often has found her main rivals to be two other hall of famers, Indiana’s Sue Snyder and Sylvianne Moison of Quebec, Canada.

The sites for the championship change yearly. She won her other world titles in 2006 in Gillette, Wyo., and in 2007 in Ardmore, Okla. Because Joan doesn’t like to fly, they have driven to every contest but one. That included a 4,950-mile round trip to Red Deer, Alberta, Canada.

For Joan, the phone call informing her that she was going into the hall of fame was one of the most exciting moments of her life.

“I set goals for myself: to pitch a perfect game, to win a world championship and to make the hall of fame. That was the icing on the cake. The hall of fame is a lifetime,” she said.

Elmore entered the Tennessee Horseshoe Pitching Hall of Fame in 2007. The state schedule runs March through October. Within the Volunteer State her main competition comes from identical twins Maxine Griffith and Marlene Ray of Covington and Adelene Foster of Chucky.

An essential piece of luggage she totes with her to every tournament is a pine shoebox shaped like a horseshoe that James built. The shoebox holds her horseshoes, a pick-up stick to retrieve shoes from the clay, a file to knock burrs off the shoes and a measuring stick.

Joan serves as the second vice president of the Tennessee Horseshoe Pitchers Association. She has four perfect games beneath her belt and was the first person to pitch a perfect game in Tennessee. Experts in both bowling and horseshoes say the feat is more difficult than bowling a 300 game.

In the meantime, the Elmores, missionaries for the sport, spoke recently to the Rotary Club and are trying to prompt the City of Mt. Juliet to construct horseshoe pitching courts in the local park.

“The game is oriented toward families. In fact, whole families travel to the tournaments,” James said.

Inside her home, Joan displays the two new trophies that she claimed earlier this month. She owns the world championship trophy that holds her name alone, but another world championship trophy bears the names of every woman who has won since 1920. She keeps this trophy until next year when she will defend her title in Grand Rapids, Iowa, and where she could repossess it for the fourth time.

“It’s so much more tougher than anybody can imagine unless they’re in the world championship,” said Joan Elmore, the only person in Tennessee who would know.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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