BRISTOL — Since his youth, Brian Simmons has lived, walked, breathed and thrown horseshoes.
After some health setbacks several years ago, the Bristol resident this week is heading to Louisiana to compete in the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association (NHPA) World Championships, where he is looking to regain a world title he won twice early in the decade.
Winning is nothing new to Simmons, who can be seen often in the summer throwing at the Sodbusters Horseshoe Pitching Club off Case Street in Middlebury. He has won seven Maine State Championship titles, two New Hampshire titles, four Rhode Island titles and two Vermont State Championships.
Simmons has been inducted into the National Horseshoe Pitchers Hall of Fame in Wentzville, Mo., has his own horseshoe line and holds numerous professional records.
At the world championships in Monroe, La., the Maine native, currently ranked second in the world for horseshoe pitching, looks to square off against long-time rival Alan Francis. The Ohio man is the winner of 16 world championships — the most in history.
The rules for the game of horseshoes are deceptively easy. A player tosses horseshoes 40 feet to stake in a clay pit; the goal is to land a ringer, placing the shoe around a metal stake 14 inches tall and one inch in diameter.
But mastering the game is devilishly difficult.
“There’s only two men in the entire world that throw (ringers) above 80 percent and that’s the defending world champion (Francis) and myself,” Simmons said. Francis currently leads the world with a 90.11 percentage and Simmons comes in second with an 87.86 percentage. The third-best horseshoe pitcher in the world averages 77.28 percent.
If both players continue to land ringers in a game of horseshoes, they cancel each other’s score out and continue to throw for a longer period of time. Simmons and Francis are so good at ringing horseshoes that they set the world record for most throws in a 40-point game at 140 each in 2009, and then they broke their own record in 2010 with 144.
But Simmons’ route to the top and back again has been long and, at times, rocky.
The son of famous horseshoe pitcher Clinton Simmons, Brian began pitching at age eight.
“As a kid, my parents used to take me to a lot of world championships and I said, ‘Boy I’d love to be a world champion someday,’ and so I set a goal for myself,” he said.
In 1974, he won the junior world championship and continued to be a dominant force in the game. He said in 2000 he became the first person ever to beat Francis in the world championship. He then did it again in 2002.
“My father was my coach, and he passed away in 1996. So then I really felt like I needed to prove what he taught me,” said Simmons. “It came true for the first time in 2000. I just looked up and said, ‘Thank you, Dad, I know you’re watching me. That one’s for you.’”
After winning two world championships in three years, Simmons was at the height of his career.
Then, suddenly, he fell ill. He had several strokes and a surgery that went awry.
“I went in for surgery and they nicked my intestine,” he said. “I almost died, so it took me awhile to come back.”
From 2003-2007, Simmons didn’t compete. For the past four years, he’s worked his way back to the top of the world stage and over Fourth of July weekend this year he tossed the best percentage of his career — ringing 89 percent of his throws.
These days, the two-time world champion takes pitching a bit easier than he once did. Between competitions, he mostly plays horseshoes for fun in the backyard.
“I’ve pitched 43 years. I’ve put in my amount of practice,” he said. “I used to throw 500-600 shoes a day.”
Like many big-time athletes, Simmons has certain habits prior to and during competitions. One has to do with his beverage of choice — beer.
“My rule of thumb is to have two beers before I start and then half a beer in between games,” Simmons said.
His teammates on the Sodbusters Horseshoe Pitching Club can’t argue with his success.
“He does better when he has a beer,” said long-time friend Debra Brown, 55. The Bristol resident herself ranks ninth in the world for women horseshoe pitchers.
Simmons moved to Bristol from Rhode Island a few years ago after Brown had introduced him to her sister Georgia McCormick, who lives in Bristol. Simmons and McCormick are now engaged.
Simmons is marrying into a family of serious horseshoe pitchers. In addition to Brown, a niece, Brianna McCormick, 16, of Bristol is ranked second in the world for junior girls and nephew Nick Preston won the junior boys’ world championship in 2004.
This week, a large contingent of the family and friends will head to Louisiana to compete and cheer each other on. In addition to Simmons, Brown and Brianna McCormick — each of whom will be going for world titles in Class A — Georgia McCormick, Mike Brown and Ron Williamson will also be attending the event.
For Simmons, he has one goal in mind: winning. After having lost to Francis by a mere one point on numerous occasions, Simmons is hungry for another world title.
“In a way I’ve accomplished all of my goals,” said Simmons. “I was inducted into the hall of fame and I’ve been a world champion … but I want to win the world championship one or two more times.”
Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected]