Last month I was asked to contribute to World Archery’s archer of the decade piece, as a resident ‘expert’. It wasn’t easy making a choice, as there were more than a few options, and picking one archer across a sport divided forever into hard categories is, of course, impossible. However, four stand out across the two main WA bowstyles. The names will probably not surprise you, but I’m going to explain the why in a bit more detail, and why I think they should be in that particular order.
4. Mike Schloesser
Watching Mikey in full flow when scoring is remarkable. It’s a marked expression of archery at its simplest and most effortless. Indeed, scoring is without doubt his strongest point. Right in the middle of the decade, in Nimes, in January 2015, he became the first man to score 600 out of 600 in World Archery indoor competition, leading to the nickname Mr Perfect. (He repeated the feat last year). Twice a Vegas champion, in 2014 and 2017, he ends the second month of 2020 the World Cup champion and – as of yesterday at this writing – the indoor World Series champion too.
But this is the new decade. You don’t always get the very best of Mikey in straight competition, and in gold medal matches, particularly in the last year or so, he’s often seemed to be close to throwing it away, particularly on the very last arrow. Usually, however, he is far enough ahead that a terrible eight doesn’t matter. He’s already won. And one of his best qualities is a refreshing honesty about the nerves and neuroticism that infects competitors at the very top of the compound sport – sometimes to recover and fight again, sometimes not. Mikey seems to be constantly, but barely, keeping the demons at bay.
The list of achievements is long and extraordinary, and there appears to be no boogeyman, no-one that gives him the scares. Yet. It’s been mostly Mikey’s decade, but the competition at the highest men’s level is now so elevated that he hasn’t quite carved out the furrow that say, Reo Wilde managed. But that may still be to come.
3. Brady Ellison
The decade 2010-2019 is a tale of two Bradys. Archers with longer memories will remember his performances in 2010 and 2011, when he dominated the World Cup circuit like no one before, or since. You might remember his role in the classic men’s team final in London 2012. You might remember a lot of things.
But there was wilderness too, even when he was still making the business end of tournaments. Several times between 2016 and 2018, Brady suggested he was going to return to shooting compound, where he started, and often after a bad round or a rough competition. (He said it to my face at least once – I still have it on tape). He even shot a couple of US competitions using both compound and recurve. He suffered a parade of problems with his fingers, which almost caused him to quit. He complained about the set system as unfair, although that slowed down a bit after the 2016 World Cup Final. He sometimes changed bows every week, searching for something that brought him back to where he wanted to be. He was occasionally a stomping, snorting mess, but many of his outbursts, often shortly after matches, were clearly born out of deep frustration at not quite achieving the incredibly high standards he sets himself.
But all that was building towards an extraordinary 2019, where he essentially hit a kind of god-mode of recurve shooting. It was something approaching total mastery of the competitive side of the sport, and glorious to watch. Magnetic. One of the most enjoyable things about watching Brady shoot is the way he rides the waves of his emotions, he’s the very opposite of a cool, machine-like shooter. You can see this best in my single favourite photograph that Dean Alberga has ever taken.
In 2019, he seemed entirely in control of everything. He radiated, um, energy, projecting his control of matches ahead of time. He is also pretty much the only male archer the top Korean men actually fear to face – they’ve almost admitted as such.
Many people put Brady top of the list for the best of the decade, and I think a lot of that is based on his astonishing performance in 2019. They might be forgetting the rather more up and down years of the 2010s. He enters 2020 crushing it indoors, having apparently pulled Jack Williams almost up to his level, and pulling off a 900 with a recurve in Vegas, one of the more extraordinary achievements in his career. But we’re in a new decade now.
I can’t see Jack Williams or anyone else taking the single outdoor spot for men in Tokyo, which will be KiSik Lee’s swansong as a coach. If the USA men don’t qualify a team, and it’s just Brady, it will be a one man show. But on the current showing – and with the current mindset – he’s going to win it all. Isn’t he?
2. Sara Lopez
Sara López Bueno almost unstoppable ability to win matches, since she arrived on the scene in 2013, at times can seem almost supernatural. Pushed hard by the by the arrival of coach Heber Mantilla, she has been the star of one of the most successful elite programmes of all time, driving on a sheaf of world-class archers. Mantilla is apparently the perfect foil for the wilful, headstrong, and opinionated Lopez, and turned her into an almost demonic force on the line – ironic, for a God-fearing lady.
Easily my favourite thing about Sara Lopez is her defining lack of self-doubt when standing on the line at full draw. There are no questions, only answers. An no-return approach to execution. This is how it will be. It is only now (an approach shared by one of my favourite champions, Ksenia Perova). There is a quiet ruthlessness too; she hates to lose to anybody, because it gives them a psychological wedge in the door.
Lopez took over seamlessly from Erika Jones as the dominant woman in her sport, and it didn’t take long to firmly stamp her authority. In the years that followed, the record of titles and wins, world records, World Cups, stretches at number one et al is extraordinary, and unmatched by any other archer. I can’t even add them all up. Last year she added the Pan-American title in what seemed like a forgone conclusion. She once won 31 matches in a row, against all the top ten. She went unbeaten for an entire year. No one has a winning record against her. She has completely dominated her era. The Serena Williams of archery.
The fact she managed all this whilst being an off-on medical student is just ridiculous. Sometimes, it seemed the only opportunities the rest of the top ten got was when she had to knock off archery and go back to university for a while. It’s not surprising she kept up her studies – the opportunities to be a professional women’s compound archer are still pretty close to zero.
Yet you feel that her career will always remain incomplete without the senior outdoor world title, which has somehow eluded her in three attempts; most memorably in Copenhagen in 2015, when she fell to Crystal Gauvin in the semi-final. If she can bag that, she could retire like Park Sung Hyun, having won literally everything and carved a permanent, deep furrow in the sport.
1. Ki Bo Bae
I was lucky enough to be at the 2016 Odense World Cup Final, and with a ringside seat for the final match between Ki Bo Bae and her teammate Choi Misun. It wasn’t the greatest battle ever seen, but there was a moment. Ki Bo Bae put in a ten, the first for a while. (I think it’s this one). Her hand dropped to her right hip, and clenched with incredible aggression. You could see her wrist shaking. It was a tiny gesture, but it said everything about the urge to win. A competition she had already won once, and in a year she had already taken more Olympic medals than any other archer. The implacable urge to triumph, to control.
It was a little echo of the tearful press conference after her double gold at London 2012, and the bland translation of an answer to a question about her last arrow: “A Korean does not shoot an eight.” What she really meant was that she didn’t shoot eights. Bo Bae mostly kept her vicious competitive streak under wraps behind a mask of beaming professionalism, but just occasionally, it would leap to the surface. Her technique, with her unusual ability to snap her shoulders right behind her body, is the model of perfect, relaxed repetition.
It took her many years in the Korean system to shine, but eventually Ki Bo Bae came closer than most to the most fabled prize in archery yet to be won in 120 years – defending an individual Olympic title. In trying, she ratcheted up three Olympic golds and a bronze, much more than anyone else. She also became world champion in 2015, took two Universiade crowns and three World Cup Final wins, and became the engine and anchor behind countless Korean women’s team victories too – and survived falling out of the national system for a year to make a spectacular comeback in Rio, something managed by none of her peers.
On top of the unarguable results, she brought a celebrity quality to a sport which sometimes lacks for star power. People turned out to see her as they turn out to see Brady.
Shortly after her World Cup Final win in 2017 she got married and started a family. There’s a lot of archers with young children on the elite lines, but it’s really only the Koreans whose team spots are under relentless pressure from a youth system generating ever better athletes. Recent events seem to show her career fading out; crying in interviews and an ignominious exit at an early stage from the Olympic trials for Tokyo, robbing the archery world of a truly incredible story arc. If she did quit – and you suspect she must be contemplating it at least – she would have to retire without an individual Asian Games title, and thus not completing the fabled ‘triple crown’ of Korean archery (only apparently achieved by Park Sung Hyun, the greatest of all time), although she did win the Asian Games team title back in 2010.
We’re really talking about different worlds, when trying to pick the very best of the decade; it is almost impossible to compare compound with recurve. But recurve archery is ultimately measured by the summer Olympics, and Ki Bo Bae’s record of three golds and a bronze, plus the world champs and many others, triumphs over all. If Lopez had been world champion, she would have been top, for sheer crushing dominance. If Brady had taken even a single Olympic gold to go with his other titles, it might well have been him. He is undoubtedly the archer’s archer, and its current biggest star. The next decade could be Mike’s. The next two decades could be Mike’s. But the choice is pretty clear. Ki Bo Bae is the archer of the decade.