So there were days – 1989, to be exact – when archery was on the list of activities manly enough to advertise scent-of-the-era Drakkar Noir, along with skiing (indoors?), boxing, what looks like pool on a glass tabletop, and some dice. Oh, and speedboating. They really pack it in to 15 seconds.
Needless to say, it’s pretty bad. Leaning back. Gripping the riser. No chestguard – be careful, there. It’s more interesting that archery, in 1989, had a place amongst hypothetical sophisticated Euro-man’s panoply of ripped activities. That it could sell something.
That it sold Drakkar Noir, a cologne so of its 1980s time that it’s even mentioned in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, is quite telling.
N.B it defaults to voiceover (or it did on mine, anyway). Check the settings and make sure you have the original Hindi soundtrack and English subs on.
Just 40 minutes long, it’s beautifully shot and edited. When I heard about it last year, I was nervous that it would use her story as some kind of sappy moralist cipher. Am pleased to see they’ve done a lot better than that, even if it is a bit heavy-handed in places
As the most often-repeated soundbite goes, Kumari was ‘born on the roadside’ in grinding poverty in rural India, before her rise to (almost) the very top of the sport. Apparently, she only took it up because there was a place to stay at a local sport academy – as she puts it: “I thought if I left home, there would be more money.”
India recently ranked bottom in a recent survey of G20 countries of ‘the best place to be a woman’. Almost 45 percent of Indian girls are married before they turn 18. In poor regions like Jharkand, around 60% of girls are married before they are 16, and often younger. In rural India, there is a particularly deep antipathy to women taking up any kind of sport.
Deepika Kumari in the call room, Rio 2016
But nevertheless, she persisted. The film shows her uncle being very proud that he beat up her mother. It shows the utterly shitty treatment of her as an athlete – which, if you read about the various tribulations of the Archery Association of India in the last year or two, doesn’t look like it’s entirely over yet.
But Ladies First is already having an effect – after watching the documentary, Maneka Gandhi, the Indian minister of Women’s Affairs and Child Development, apparently pledged to set up a fund to support Deepika’s training and to support other female athletes. Well, it’s about time. The film graphically shows the remarkable discrepancies within Indian Olympic sport, with the women’s archery team making the 32 hour journey to Rio in economy, while their accompanying officials travelled business class.
Kumari was apparently reluctant at first to participate in the film because it might interfere with her Rio preparation, but eventually grew to trust the filmmakers enough to open up further than ever before. “The story is about fighting,” director Shaana Levy-Bahl said to Vogue India last week. “Sports gives girls a sense of worth and confidence.”
Personally, I’ve been lucky enough to meet Deepika several times, although I’ve found her very difficult to interview, about anything. Recently I wondered if she might not be totally comfortable speaking in English. So the last time, in Rome, I asked her and her coach if she wanted to speak in Hindi, so I could get it translated, but she wasn’t having it. I did a piece with what I had, but it really wasn’t much. Ach, maybe it’s just me. 🙂
But I could entirely understand her wariness of talking to me/men/anybody, as the Indian media is notoriously sexist and frequently vicious about their sportspeople, and even more so when they are from Jharkand (for a comparison, imagine how the most reactionary media in your country would react to a gypsy Olympian). The film includes an incident in 2013 with Kumari and her teammates, fresh from a Hyundai Archery World Cup victory (where they beat Korea) being harassed to the point of tears by TV crews at Indira Ghandi airport.
Deepika Kumari and teammates at the Antalya World Cup 2017
The endemic sexism in the Indian media frequently extends to the language of reporting; when male archers get beaten, they were “overpowered”, but when Kumari gets beaten, she “meekly succumbed”.
Apparently Kumari is about to star in a movie about her homeland. Perhaps her archery career is just getting going. Perhaps – like her recent nemesis Tan Ya-Ting – she needs just one big major win to open the floodgates. But it’s clear that her role as a beacon of what is possible is just beginning.
Day 3. The final blast. They’ve moved me from the rodeo shed to one of the other huge halls upstairs, and I have three new target mates. The non-championship archers are split into divisions called ‘flights’. You can win some money if you finish at the top of your flight. As we’ve been categorised by standard so far, there’s an air of slight resignation down our wing. I’m in with people who are as good as me, i.e. people who are having a slightly bad day at the office. On the other side of the hall, a remarkable three Olympic gold medalists are lining up to shoot (Jay Barrs, Simon Fairweather and JC Holgado).
But on my target, there is Bob (I’ll call him Bob). Bob looks to be mid-40s and heavyset. Bob spends the entire session complaining about how bad he’s shooting, how wrong everything is going and so on – coupling it with ever-increasing estimates of his own ability. “Normally I shoot like 250…” “…at home I can do 270…” “my best is like 280.” Bob ends up shooting 206. Bob is accompanied by a wife or girlfriend who is absolutely lit up at 12.30 in the afternoon and calls his (and mine, and everyone else’s) scores out with elan, cocktail in one hand, binoculars in the other. “You pounded that last one honey!”
Bob complains to me between literally every end. “I don’t know what’s happening today.” “Right now I just want to throw the bow down the range?” Everything is phrased somewhere between a question and a statement. I want to strangle him, but am polite enough to recommend he takes a walk around the block (or whatever) between ends. He blurts out that he’s only had one drink today at some point. “What’s that drink with wine and orange juice? “Sangria?”. “Nah, not that.”
There is Charlie. (I’ll call him Charlie). In his thirties. Looks like a decent guy with decent taste in music. Charlie is having a terrible time shooting, but thankfully expresses it non-verbally. You’ve seen Charlie before. The shake of the head. The mouthed ‘f**k’. The flashes of anger and self-loathing. The leaning up against the wall and staring into the middle distance. At one point, I’m pretty sure he went and actually banged his head on the wall. Charlie is like me and (probably) you. Charlie came to Vegas thinking he was going to shoot somewhere near his best, and take home a proud memory. Charlie is making a few minor errors and dropping arrows all over the face. I see myself in Charlie.
I carry the octopus, that I may drink of its cunning and strength
The last of us (I’ll call her Alice) is a blonde student lady barebow who is having an incredibly awesome day. She skips to the target between ends. She dances waiting for her turn to shoot. She says goshdarnit and similar folksy stuff all the time. Alice appears to be on a manic upswing, and is on form too. Needless to say, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of archery outshoots us all, slightly morose sighted recurves, by a couple of points. It’s carnage. Bob stares at the final target faces and says “I’ve been beaten by a barebow”, like it’s the worst thing that has ever happened to him. (I am a member of a club with some of the best barebowers in the UK and have been beaten by them on numerous occasions, so I am less surprised).
Me? I have a day not dissimilar to yesterday, i.e. mixed to crap. Some great arrows and some minor errors which I don’t have time to correct. A brief practice the day before was not enough. I desperately wish my coach was here. It’s probably something dumb and correctable. I finish on a stinking 204. You could class the weekend as a first day at around my best, and two following days somewhat below it. It’s more frustrating because it’s almost pretty good. It’s almost 260-level. Almost. But not. I’m feeling a lot more cheerful about it though. Perhaps because it’s done, and I can start work on getting better.
My Vegas is over. All our Vegas-es are over. Charlie looks like someone has shot his dog. I gently say to him, “I guess you were also expecting something better, huh?” He winces, and says: “Yeah, but you know what they say. Archery happens.”
You can’t see the horses on TV. Just a few yards from the arena where the pro compounds are competing for the biggest cash prize in archery, there’s a few beautiful horses munching hay. The South Point apparently has stabling room for up to 2000 (they usually do some of the biggest equestrian events in the USA here).
The Vegas Shoot championship showdown is the big show at the end. The audience start grabbing the best seats a few hours beforehand, and the noise level gradually ratchets up. It looks like there’s a couple of thousand people here.
In the darkness at the rear of the archery arena, the eight men who shot clean – a perfect 300, every day – line up along with the ‘lucky dog’, one of the many more guys who shot 899 and came through a shoot-off to grab the last place available. They are all guys (although Tanja Jensen shot 900 last year). There’s a lot of tension on faces, a lot of fear. Over the three days to get here, you can concentrate and pretend that you’re practicing. Follow your process. It’s harder to prepare for this.
This year, the lucky dog is Christopher Perkins of Canada, who manages to look more determined, and less nervous, than the eight men in front of him. They’re introduced one by one, and take their spots. After just one end that sees Pagnioni take an early bath, the competition switches from ‘Vegas scoring’ – with the big ten counting as ten points, to championship scoring, where only the inner X ring will do. This is to speed things up.
Three arrows, and it must be thirty points. The next end sees six of the remaining eight men fall, leaving just Bob Eyler and the lucky dog Chris Perkins.But Perkins has an extra challenge – he cannot place, he can only win or lose. It’s a rough rule, that reinforces what the Vegas championship is all about; the mark of absolute perfection. If you’re gonna play with the big boys, you’d better stand up to them.
Nora Valdez, who finished third in the women’s shootdown
After a third place shootoff that sees Kris Schaff edge out Paul Tedford, Perkins and Eyler line up again. Both drill the X ring on their first, but Perkins’s third shot drifts low – way low, by Vegas standards. There’s a collective sigh in the room. The audience know the game is up as long as Eyler can deliver the final X, and he does. In a little over five ends of shooting, we have a winner. Bob Eyler raises his hands. It’s done. He takes the $52,000 first prize. Chris Perkins has to leave with nothing (ok, ninth place and a very small cheque). It seems harsh. It is.
Compared to many archery finals, it’s pure theatre, of course. This is a show town, and the increasing popularity of the shoot as a broadcast is because it delivers drama and surprise at every turn. The Vegas Shoot has an inbuilt drama, a pressure cooker tension that is helped along by the structure of the shoot, with the constant pauses to change faces, and the TV, the lights and the commentary. It’s great stuff. By the end, I’m convinced it’s what the sport needs more of.
The trade show is packed away, the halls gradually empty, bow cases are rolled to the parking lot past tinkling slot machines, and Sunday finishes with food and cocktails and pai gow and cocktails and blackjack (and more cocktails and more blackjack). It’s been incredible, really. It’s not like anything else on earth. Where else can you see a recent Olympic gold medalist drop a few hundred at roulette at three in the morning? I’m itching to come back next year already.
I want another go.
American noir. Paris casino, North entrance.
Special thanks to Jodi Ess, all the WA comms team, and all my target mates.
It’s 9am, and I’m on the line again. Kind of an undignified time to do anything in Las Vegas. Not much useful gets done at 9am here. It’s dead time. I’ve never shot at 9am before, but there’s a lot of things here I’ve never done before.
I’m back in the same rodeo hall, on the same target, same drill as yesterday. They call us for the first practice end, and the bow feels twice as heavy as before. Uh-oh. I dismiss the practice ends, and start work. That’s when it starts going wrong. The worst is the head.
You know those days where there’s one thought in your mind, and then there’s also an ongoing narrative (for me, it’s often what I’m going to write that day). And then there’s usually a song. Today, it’s ‘Baby Please Don’t Go‘ by Them!. Maybe they were playing it in the cafe. And of course, none of these things will budge. No matter how many breaths you take, whatever you focus on, and ahhhh that one is sunk.
It’s awful. It’s terrible. I can’t get the shots away cleanly. My release doesn’t want to behave. The shot feels clumsy. I finish on 203, thirty-seven points down on yesterday. It really feels like a testament to how far I’ve come that I managed to score that many. It felt much, much worse. There’s even a couple of wide ones which ‘group’ in the low left six, which is an error I’ve never had before.
At the halfway mark, when the target faces get changed from bottom to top, I rip the horrible face off and put on a fresh one. As an aside, I am grateful to Chris Hill for filling me in on why the faces get moved and the ‘bottom line’ shoot first.
The reason why you shoot bottom target first in Vegas, is because in the old days, the shoot was at the Riviera casino. The lighting was super bad so they had spotlights above the target bales to light them. If you shot the top target, the shadows of the arrows would be all over the bottom target. So most people preferred the top position and most didn’t like the bottom. Since it gave an advantage to shoot at arm height, they made everyone shoot half the rounds one on the bottom and half on top to be fair.
The second half on the bottom is a little tidier, but not much. It’s still all over the face compared to yesterday. I’m glad when it ends. I’m glad for the sympathetic looks from my target mates, who are rapidly becoming my favourite people.
It didn’t help that last night I was hanging out in Vegas’ downtown; half a world away from the locals-y, folksy South Point stuffed with archers. Downtown Vegas, once the shabbier end of town, has been injected with money in the last couple of decades. It now hovers uneasily and noisily between the drunken spring break atmosphere at one end of Fremont Street and a kind of hipster Brooklynisation at the other, and still all bumping up against the much darker and poorer confines of what is known as the Naked City.
So instead of resting and dreaming of archery, as Ki Bo Bae recommends for staying on top, I was trying and failing to win a silver ten-dollar gaming token with the face of Meyer Lansky at the last Silver Strike slot left at the smoky El Cortez. Shades of a now vanished city. Fire-breathing praying mantises. Watching the disinterested dancing girls at The D. Playing no-limit hold ’em with an extraordinary bunch of extended friends at Binion’s, including a founder member of the MIT blackjack team. I mean, I got to bed at a reasonable (for Vegas) time, but there’s not much left. I thought there was. You can’t do it all.
And of course, I’m paying the price. I’m not the only one – there’s a couple of very high profile archers on lower-than-expected scores who look like they’ve got an all-night casino face on. It does matter. It is important. Not in the grander scheme of things, but as so often, archery is a tool for self-examination. It reveals more to you than you tell yourself. It tells you when you’ve neglected your mental and physical health. It’s a tool that lets you measure yourself, where you have been, and where you would like to go. There’s a magic to that. It’s a reminder that there are no excuses. Just consequences.
So there’s one day to go here. I’m going to get some sleep. And then I’m off to the practice range.
I suppose I should stop calling this a countdown, but hey. Vegas kicked off today. The earliest line calls were at 7am, but luckily I managed to avoid that draw and shot my first set of 30 arrows at 12noon, in the big rodeo hall. They’re all big rodeo halls.
And it went OK. I loved the moment of silence immediately before the first scoring end. The whole hall seemed still. I didn’t feel seriously nervous, but during the first shot in anger, after two practice ends, I froze up. Aaagh. Eventually, eventually, I got through the clicker and got the bolt on the face. The first couple of ends were testy, after that it settled down a bit and I started to be a bit more aggressive with the expansion, and things started to group a lot tighter. Not bad.
Ignore that bad four. Practice arrow.
I also realise there was a small problem with my nocks, a couple of them have drifted around a little. You may be reading this thinking, wow, what sort of n00b idiot doesn’t check his nocks before he shoots a tournament? You’d be asking an entirely reasonable question. I decided to shoot the single face rather than the three spot, like 90% of my recurve flight. Perhaps one day, the three spot. Not now.
I really like the way Vegas dances entirely to its own tune in terms of tournament rules. The ‘bottom’ line – the archers with their faces on the lower half off the boss – always start. Then at the halfway mark there’s a switch from bottom to top – after fifteen arrows, you take the face off and replace it on the top or bottom respectively, pushing the washered nails in to the burlap with your bare and increasingly raw thumb. (Oh, apparently you’re supposed use the metal part of your tab. Why did no-one tell me that?) Ow. Some people change the faces between the practice ends and the scoring ends too. Some people.
Everyone has to do this jump. Even the pros. It’s a quintessential gesture of American sport. You’re all in this. You’re all part of it. The first end after that a handful of people invariably shoot the wrong face, so the judges have to make a sweep of the top faces to remove the rogue arrows. Duhhh. (Yeah, I almost did that).
My target mates have been here before, and everyone is super helpful. You sense how good everyone is feeling about this event. It’s a big weekend off to do something you like doing, and then you can lark around in Las Vegas afterwards, the greatest playground for adults in this world. I finish on 240 out of 300, putting me comfortably in mid-table mediocrity in the flights category. Plenty of space to improve though. Two days to go.
Two people got married today, at the Mathews booth in the trade fair. In Mathews shirts. With a bucket of arrows as a bouquet. That was kinda weird.
My next line call is at 9am tomorrow. I’ll let you know how it goes.
The format for almost everybody is pretty simple. Shoot thirty arrows a day, add them up. That’s your competition. No head-to-heads. International teams and kids at their first tournament. Men and women all piled together. All in the same boat.
Jesus, this is huge. I’m still pretty tired; I tried to do some stretch-band work in the toilet of the creaking British Airways 747 that brought me here from London, but it really was not big enough. So I ‘missed’ a day of practice, but whatever. Am going to shoot what I’ve brought, despite waking bolt upright at 4.50am, body clock set wrongly. I post on Facebook shortly afterwards and get a reply from fellow Brit Patrick Huston saying ‘can’t sleep either’. Heh. Breakfast at half-past-five in the morning, why the hell not. This is the perfect place for it.
The Vegas Shoot is the largest indoor competition in the world, and regarded as the most prestigious. It actually comprises two major tournaments: the fourth leg of the indoor archery World Cup season and its grand finale, and the various categories of the Vegas Open shoot, the main event finishes in a shootdown amongst compound archers that can be summarised as ‘one miss of the x ring and you’re out’. Alongside that there are a dozen or so sub-tournaments; local and junior finals ringing out over the PA over the preceding days. The big dance. There’s plenty more facts and superlatives, it’s easier to read Andrea’s excellent guide to it on the NFAA website.
All this is held in a cavernous casino hotel called the South Point, a couple of miles south of the ‘end’ of the famous Las Vegas Strip, which has two immense halls split into two ranges each and a further events arena for the finals. This year is the biggest gate ever, and almost 3600 archers have arrived from all corners of the USA and fifty one different countries. Today, the last day before competition begins, the buzz is rising. The place is jammed. There are queues for many things and there’s a constant chatter of fat arrows rattling in quivers in every hallway. This really is tribal gathering of American archery. You sense that no-one here would rather be anywhere else.
Today (Thursday) is a free-for-all open practice: grab a target, grab some pins and find a spot at any one of the hundreds of bosses. (Vegas, even for the pros, is quite do-it-yourself and doesn’t rely so much on an army of volunteers for organisation and scoring). Every hall is full of archers, and from tonight, you can practice literally around the clock in the city that, needless to say, never sleeps.
The symbol of Vegas is the iconic three-spot target, although not everybody knows that you can turn it over and shoot on a regular single ten-zone target (outside of the championship division). I haven’t quite decided which one I’m going to go for yet. It seems a bit churlish to go to Vegas and not shoot the three-spot, but in practice, it’s clear I’m getting the better results on the single-spot.
I watch and chat with legend-of-Sydney-2000, Simon Fairweather and Sjef Van Den Berg. Simon, like me, is shooting in the recurve ‘flights’ division (another unique Vegas feature of which more tomorrow). Sjef is, as usual, at the top of the pile of the championship recurves, with a lot more at stake. Unlike most events, they can practice almost anonymously here amongst an ocean of compounders. Both look almost absurdly relaxed, practicing in the vast hall at the back of the hotel that has rodeo bars at its entrance. I mean, I’m more nervous about this.
Sjef moving at quantum speed
I talk to Chris Marsh, the World Archery events director, here to supervise the World Cup event leg. “Vegas is unique, because it’s the only event in the calendar that unites two worlds; the enormous NFAA with its field and hunting audience, and World Archery, which is of course focussed on target archery. It’s a meeting and mingling of the two worlds which doesn’t happen anywhere else.” It’s an immense expression of the American side of archery in one of the country’s most American of cities.
yes, this man has a blade on his barebow
So I join the throng, and practice ends up going really smoothly, starting strongly in the middle and wandering off a little towards the end. I’m glad it’s only thirty arrows a day, anyway. If it was sixty, I’d be in more trouble. So I’ll decide tomorrow morning which side I’m going to shoot. The bow is working well and reasonably in tune, and apart from a moving clicker, fixed with a bit of brute force, is easily going to outshoot the archer. So we’ll see where we are at tomorrow. It’s time to face the first thirty.
“A monk reading his sutra and meditating, and an archer focusing on his target, it’s the same thing.”
Very strong 14 minute video about the traditional and Olympic sides of the sport in Mongolia from a couple of years back. Some great recurve advice in there as well.
Mongolia retains a deep tradition of archery where the bow is part of the cultural identity of the country (rather similar to Bhutan, despite the countries being many thousands of kilometres apart). Some great crafting of a composite Asian bow, too. Well worth your time.
Kate, my coach, sits on a chair and gets ready to deliver more punishment. “Again. Three more.” I’ve seen Kate be wonderful with floundering beginners, but as you get a bit further up the food chain, she doesn’t waste her charm. This evening, in a joint lesson with resident club fletcher Emma, we are expected to listen and be good, and the instructions get more curt.
We are doing an exercise involving coming up to full draw and alternately pushing and pulling with the front arm and the back muscles. Suddenly the bow feels twice as heavy. “Five more on the front, then again on the front.” It’s torture. “Strength strength strength this week. The most important thing.” Apart from all the other important things. Kate never misses anything. There is no getting awayfrom poor form, weak shots, that-thing-you’re-doing.
It’s pretty simple, but the thing that has been missing from my recurve life for many years is regular coaching, and I am lucky to be near enough to Archery Fit here in London to come and get it. It is the single most valuable thing in the sport. For all the free advice and information that the digital revolution has brought us, you can’t learn archery from YouTube, and you need structure to improve. If there is no coach, nothing will change very fast.
My arm extension is looking good now. “How many pushups are you doing every morning?” I tell her. OK, I lie. Kate recommends 100 pushups every morning. I would find that difficult to impossible. “One pushup equals one shot.” Still, I’ve been doing some, and reversals in front of the TV, and pulldowns and pullups at the gym. It’s made the difference.
After four days of several hundred arrows more than I’ve ever shot in my life, large chunks of my upper body are aching and my back is killing me. But the strength work has made a difference. I feel more in charge of the bow, and able to hold for much longer without collapse, more able to keep… on… pulling…. Vegas is only thirty arrows a day. Thirty good arrows. That’s more than doable now.
This Thursday saw a painful late change to hand position in order to fix an alignment problem that saw weaker shots start to smack into the bracer. It’s a fix that kind of covers over the fact I’m still not turning my elbow over enough. But it’s still better than having one in every six shots score a big fat miss to the right of the six zone. Kate is sanguine about my chances in Nevada. “Never mind about what is down the other end. The important thing is that you enjoy yourself. The rest of it doesn’t matter. The point of archery is to enjoy it.”
There’s been some technical changes as well. I’ve long known my arrows were a bit stiff, and I finally managed to put in some 120 grain points to replace the 100s. Bingo. Straighter flight. Bareshaft close to bang on. Shot sounds better. Group a tiny bit tighter. Like, duhhh.
At the recommendation of my ‘arrow doctor’ Yulia I’ve added offset AAE WAV vanes to my ACGs. They worked for her indoors. I hope they’ll work for me. She also shows me a vastly better method for fletching. This should be taught from the get go; part of beginners courses. I reject her kind offer to set me up with some spin wings as I don’t have enough time to get used to them before Vegas. Maybe next time. You may be reading this thinking “why is he only sorting this stuff now?”. You’d be asking a very reasonable question.
There’s been some other work down. After a ‘hangry’ day at the range resulted in bad moods and worse archery, I started paying a bit more attention to diet, trying to make sure I balanced carbs and protein better. I kind of know what I need, I just don’t always get it right – especially when busy. One less coffee per day too, but have brought a sack of jelly babies for instant sugar thump if necessary.
Finally, after several weeks hard-ish work, the shot is stable, the arrows are staying on the face, and the scores are starting to ratchet up. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s something. It’s the physical expression of an internal desire. I’m starting to sense the deep magic of achievement based on solid work. I’m annoyed, but not angry if I don’t see a dark flash downrange across the yellow of the target post-release.
I suppose I’d settled for being a very mediocre recurve archer too long ago, without wanting to put the effort in to not settling for making up the numbers. Now I feel a little bit more possibility in the wind. Finishing tonight with a crisp 29 left the last proper practice session on a real high. I hope I can deliver a performance out there that justifies the work and effort.