A lean blonde from Torrance, Calif., throws three darts into the board positioned 7 ft. 9 in. in front of her. Thump! Thump! Thump! Her arrows, as darts are called in the players' lingo, make the muted sound characteristic of these pointed missiles hitting their target. Sandy Reitan and her partner (selected in a blind draw) are en route to victory in the Draw Doubles competition, one of 11 events that attracted some 1,450 entrants to the $20,000 Washington, D.C. Open.
They're playing at one of the 50 dart boards set up at three cavernous venues at the tournament site, the Marriott-Twin Bridges hotel. Though the competition is open to all, women are lightly represented. But it's only Friday evening, and many more women will turn out on Saturday and Sunday to contest various ladies' and mixed events.
Meanwhile, the large number of male contestants hardly fazes Reitan, a top professional player whose place in the annals of the sport cannot be denied.
From 1981 through 1985 she was ranked as the No. 1 woman dart player in the United States. In 1986, she was No. 3, and last year No. 2, a position she also held this year as of mid-April.
In 1983 in Edinburgh, Scotland, she became the first and only American woman to win the World Cup in the ladies' singles category.
This year she has another big chance as one of four Americans (two men and two women) invited to join 44 other international stars in Tokyo for the $387,000 World Darts Grand Prix next month.
For several years now, she and her husband Andy Green, also a pro, have been crisscrossing the country to play in the three-day contests that make up the dart circuit. She travels 40 weekends a year, and Green nearly as many, in a season that extends over at least 49 weekends - to participate in a sport that's given her more than one reward.
She met Green in a darting environment, and for two years before their marriage, they played together in mixed doubles. Six years ago she opened the Dart Shoppe, a store in Anaheim, Calif., that sells darts and accessories.
Their trips to tournaments, while frequent, are usually as brief as possible (a flight out Friday afternoon and a return flight on Sunday night), with the rest of the week spent taking care of their family. ``We're at home with Andy's six- and eight-year-old children more than couples that work 40 hours a week,'' she says.
The soft-spoken Reitan tried darts 10 years ago as a lark - but quickly learned ``it was something I could do as well as players who had done it a long time.'' It took a while to develop the consistency and mental toughness that would make her a champion, but that first night the sport won her over. She soon joined a local dart league and learned the basics of the game. After 13 months of league play, she entered her first tournament - and finished high enough in the standings to recoup her entry fee. She was on her way.
Though Reitan does not dispute the fact that good hand-eye coordination and concentration are necessary for success in the sport, she rates ``the will to win and being able to carry a positive attitude all the way through play'' as the qualities that separate the top players from the rest of the field. She also attributes some of her success to her parents' enthusiasm for sports, which they imparted to the five children they brought up in Duluth, Minn.
Unlike many sports, darts is one where physical strength is not a factor - and yet men continue to better women in the head-to-head open events. Reitan believes that the principal reason for this is that ``men have been brought up to be more competitive.'' She predicts, however, that this situation will change with future generations, since more girls are being raised to believe that there's nothing wrong with participating in competitive sports.
Cash prizes in darts are still small by the standards of other sports. In Washington, Reitan won three events, came in second in another, and finished in the top 16 in a fifth, for which she earned $770. And as the No. 2 money winner for all of last year her winnings were $17,253 (Kathy Karpowich of Freeland, Pa., was No. 1 with $23,487, while the comparable figures for the leading men were $35,287 and $29,920).
The money is growing, though, thanks to corporate sponsors who have helped build this year's pool to $1.5 million. And big-name players like Reitan have additional sources of income via arrangements with sponsors. One company pays Sandy a fee for promotional work, while another picks up all travel expenses for her and her husband.
Many sponsoring companies are British, which is not surprising in view of the popularity of the game there. According to Jay Tomlinson, vice president of the American Darts Organization, ``darts is the second most popular sport in England behind soccer.'' And Reitan, who has competed in England, Scotland, and Australia, still fondly remembers her reception in such places.
``I get more recognition there than in the US,'' she says. ``American children play baseball from the time they can walk, but British children play darts. In England, dart players are like movie stars here. Dart competitions are on TV every week.''
The Washington tournament was hosted by one of the 301 local dart associations affiliated with the ADO. These associations organize dart players into leagues for weekly play, and are the backbone of the sport. Tomlinson estimates that 100,000 people play league darts each week across the nation.
Those who carry it to the tournament level develop a special camaraderie - and one without any artificial barriers. Thus when Reitan is asked if there is a particular bond among the women, she gently counters: ``The camaraderie among [all] darters is second to none. Each match begins and ends with a handshake. When you toe the oche [the line the players' feet must not cross] to begin a match, friendship ends. After the game is over, the friendship begins again.''