It was an exhausting, thousand-mile, 16-hour trip from Crozet to Monroe, Louisiana, and then the grueling ride back, but Eli Sullivan came home with an enormous trophy and a huge victory. Eli, who rose in the international ranks during the pandemic both in local matches and by filming his pitches, was able to meet other young contenders in person and prevail against them all in the 10-day world championship event. After sparse attendance for the last couple of years, the tournament, July 11 to 23, welcomed competitors from Europe, Canada and Africa.
Eli, who starts at Henley this month, pitches in the cadet class established by the National Horseshoe Pitching Association. He’s the second oldest in a family of six children and most of them, plus other relatives and friends, made the long journey in two packed vehicles. Being in the car for so long was the worst part, Eli said. The best part: “Just the pitching.”
The unassuming 10-year-old (he turns 11 this month) was noticed by the media and appeared on local radio and television as part of their coverage of the world tournament. In each appearance, he was asked how he stayed so calm. His answer: “Take a breath and focus. Think about your pitching, not your score.”
“That’s the thing about Eli,” said Heath Shawn, a family friend who’s helped Eli with publicity and sponsorship. “He was under tremendous pressure, even more since he drew a crowd each time he pitched. Everyone who heard about him came to watch.”
Shawn said he knew Eli would be the winner from the start. “Eli’s reputation worked against the other cadets. They were visibly nervous pitching next to him.” Eli usually pitches ringers a reliable 70% of the time, although he was disappointed in his overall 69.5% at the tournament. “I had one weak round,” he said. His closest competitor pitches at less than 40%.
Eli said he’d gotten used to the attention and the crowds. “I can hear them talking about me, but I just tune it out.” He won a couple of other awards in Louisiana besides the world championship trophy. There’s a plaque for his win in the mixed juniors and cadets doubles, and a smaller trophy for the preliminary tournament there.
There’s no rest for the world champ. To retain his standing, he needs to hold steady or increase his percentage of ringers. At publication time for the Gazette, he was headed to Richmond for the state doubles championship games.
Travel is expensive, so sponsors have been essential to the young athlete’s career. He acknowledges them by wearing shirts with their names, and he’s written thank you notes to them: Red Line Construction, Crozet Hardware, Parkway Pharmacy and Virginia Grow Supplies. More sponsors are always welcome; they can inquire through the Facebook page, Eli Sullivan Horseshoes.