Grace Savage looked pint size as the 10-year-old leaned her shoulder into the stock of a shiny replica assault rifle.
With a calm pull of the trigger, she fired the .22-caliber weapon and sent a bullet flying inches above the target.
“OK, now this time aim a little lower,” counseled the instructor, Kurt Brouillet. “See if you can hit the 2.”
Thwack. A bullet hole appeared on the white paper target, an inch above the numeral.
Tiny girls shooting big guns isn’t the only unusual sight at the first Victory Games summer camp, created at the Sealed Mindset gun range and self-defense training facility in New Hope. In a week, campers learn shooting, archery, self-defense, knot-tying, tactical decisionmaking and compression-only CPR — and then put those skills to work in competitive games in which teams of two compete against each other to win the Victory Games.
It’s a little like “The Hunger Games,” only instead of life and death, the Victory Games is all about winning and losing and the benefits that can come from either one.
The camp is aimed at one side of a child development debate that is far from settled — whether children’s activities should promote self-esteem so children gain confidence or whether they should allow winning and losing so children instead gain perseverance.
Ex-Navy SEAL Lawrence Yatch created the camp for the first time this summer as a countercultural experience — one that places expectations and responsibilities on the campers and eschews the notion that they all should receive participation medals.
“Learning by nature depends on failure,” Yatch said. “By creating an environment where everyone wins, you’ve by nature made failure a bad thing, whereas failure should be celebrated. Perseverance should be celebrated.”
‘Not everyone is going to win’
The Victory Games concept appealed to parents of the dozen children in the first camp, including Grace’s mother, Heather Savage of Princeton, who said the competition offers valuable lessons about real life.
“Not everyone is going to win the three-legged race,” she said. “That doesn’t mean you spit on them for losing. But it doesn’t mean that nobody loses.”
Activities are diverse enough to give kids of different ages and abilities opportunities to win, and bonus points are awarded when any of the campers display sportsmanship, teamwork or leadership. The teams can then spend their points, strategically, on items to make the final contests at the end of the week easier, such as scopes for the guns they use in target shooting or lighter medicine balls to carry in relay races.
As with archery camps in the metro area, which have full waiting lists, the Victory Games take advantage of the popularity of “The Hunger Games” books and movies, which feature a bow-wielding heroine who wins a fight-to-the-death TV game show. Teams in Yatch’s camp are even named after districts from “The Hunger Games” storyline, and participants on one day dress up like their favorite characters.
Few of the participants have shot anything stronger than a BB gun before, but some had experience with archery and karate.
“I told [Grace] she would get to shoot things, and she loves archery,” said her mother. “So it was pretty cool to her.”
Hoping to grow next year
The camps being held this week, and also Aug. 5-8, mostly involve children of adults who use the Sealed Mindset facility, which provides training in self-defense and firearms as well as experiential events such as simulated SEAL missions for weekend warriors and target-shooting date nights for couples. Yatch said he wanted to be conservative in offering the first camp but hopes it will gain popularity and that he will expand enrollment next summer.
The curriculum was developed over five years, and the instructors are experts — from the EMT teaching CPR, to Yatch, who as a SEAL had to train in underwater knot-tying, to the ex-Marine John Kent leading the campers through athletic contests.
“Below the line! Below the line!” Kent yelled, pointing a stick at the starting point before one race. “I’ve got a stick for a reason.”
Kent said he plays up the drill sergeant role a little bit for the fun of the camp, but the structure and the rules of the event are real. Grace accidentally pointed the .22 in the wrong direction on the first day, giving her an “unsafe” citation. A second would mean removal from camp.
Yatch hopes the camp has a long-term impact on the children and teaches them important safety skills but also no fear of failure.
“We wouldn’t be putting the effort we put into this just to entertain the kids,” Yatch said. “We’re not doing ‘make-things-out-of-duct tape camp.’ Our goal is to have long-term effects on the children.”