Joan Elmore set to defend world title

Joan Elmore tosses about 400 horseshoes a day in the backyard pitch her husband built for her. Courtesy of Joan Elmore

Fans of the Chicago Cubs grow up and grow old hoping that what came before need not predict what comes next. They have to. No matter how many seasons sink before Labor Day, mixed with occasional sudden heartbreak like the collapse of 1969 or the National League Championship Series of 2003, they try to believe that around the corner awaits a world in which a team that showed no aptitude for it for more than a century can yet become a champion.

Joan Elmore is one of those fans. The resident of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., doesn't remember the origin of the allegiance. It's just there.

"There is just something about them that draws you in and makes you want to support them," Elmore said.

She's also proof that championships, even dynasties, can come out of nowhere. When the best horseshoe pitchers from across the map gather at the end of the month for the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association World Tournament in St. George, Utah, Elmore will attempt to win her fifth consecutive championship and seventh title in the past eight years. Not bad for a woman who didn't discover the sport until she was nearly 50 years old.

And not exactly what most would have guessed was ahead of her up until that moment.

"My mother is like the least athletic person you could ever imagine," her daughter Christa Elmore said, laughing. "I've never seen her do anything sportslike in my entire life. ... I was very surprised when she just started to get so good at it."

It was also the younger of Joan's two daughters whose own talent for throwing things inadvertently set her mother on a course to become one of the most prolific champions in horseshoe pitching history. Joan didn't play sports growing up. She was too short for basketball, one of the few options available to girls at the time, and a childhood battle with rheumatic fever further curtailed any such ambitions. For the better part of her first five decades, her athletic life was that of a fan -- of the Cubs, of course, but more important as a softball mom supporting Christa, a decorated high school pitcher.

When Christa moved on to college and gave up the sport, her mom suddenly found herself with a whole lot of free time previously devoted to her daughter's schedule of practices, tournaments and gatherings.

Enter horseshoe pitching, a sport the NHPA suggests dates to Roman times and certainly has an extensive documented history in this country, from the Civil War to the pitch Harry Truman had installed at the White House. Joan saw an advertisement for a local tournament and thought it sounded interesting enough to merit closer inspection, at least for a few minutes. Fascinated by what she found, she ended up staying for the whole event.

As everyone who ever threw horseshoes at a barbecue, camp, family reunion or any of the thousands of other settings in which the game is played casually knows, the object is to accumulate ringers -- the name given when the pitched horseshoe encircles the stake placed at a given distance from the thrower. In competitive pitching, a person's ringer percentage acts as a ranking tool, similar to the way a handicap sorts players in golf.

In her first attempt at establishing a ranking shortly after she took up pitching, Elmore qualified in the A class, just one step below the highest possible rung on the ranking ladder.

By 2000, just a few years after wandering into that first local tournament as an observer, she finished seventh in the championship class in the world tournament. She finished in the top five in each of the next five championships, including second-place finishes in 2004 and 2005.

Not long after she started pitching, her husband built her a pitch in their backyard. On most days, she can be found throwing 200 horseshoes in the morning and 200 more at night. So much for a mere hobby.

"You have to want it," Elmore said, her cheerful, polite Southern accent entirely belied by the words themselves. "There has to be a want in you to want to move up. There are lots and lots of pitchers who are satisfied in their class. And they're happy with that, and that's good. But if you want to excel, you have to put in the time."

Her first world tournament championship came in 2006. To win it, she defeated Sue Snyder and Sylvianne Moisan in the final two matches. All those two had done was split the past seven championships between them.

"I was really a lot more relaxed than you would think being my first chance at a title," Elmore said. "And then after that it was a blur because I was so excited."

She was just getting started. She won her second title the next year. Her current streak of four consecutive titles matches two other women for the longest in the history of a championship that goes back to 1920. Even in the lone year since 2006 when she didn't win it all, she managed to set a record for the most ringers in a defeat, with 123 against Moisan.

"Winning a tournament the very first time is exciting; it's a goal that you reached," Elmore said. "But defending it is, to me, wonderful. It's more of a challenge, and it makes a better pitcher out of you, trying to defend."

There isn't much money to be made in competitive horseshoes, hardly enough to break even on trips to tournaments in places like Utah. But the label "world champion" has a currency all its own. People stop and tell Elmore about seeing her name in the paper. The checkout clerk at the grocery store asks about her most recent tournaments. The preacher at her church even got up in front of everyone and challenged the champion to a game.

To make it fair, she promised to pitch left-handed.

"Little did he know, I am left-handed," Elmore admitted.

Spoken like someone born to compete.

In 2009, Elmore was inducted into the NHPA Hall of Fame, one of just three women inducted in the past decade. Not bad for a mom who was looking to cure a case of empty-nest syndrome.

"I have just never been so moved in my life," said Christa, who choked up anew at the memory. "She was so amazing giving her speech in front of probably 300-plus people about what horseshoes meant to her."

It looks as though Cubs fans will have to wait until next year yet again. But it can happen. Just look at the trophies piling up in a small Tennessee town.

"No matter what your age, find something to do," Elmore advised. "Keep active with something that you enjoy. And of course, I would recommend horseshoes to anyone. It's great exercise and a great time meeting people.

"It's just an enjoyable thing to do."

All the more when you win.