pic via https://www.instagram.com/sarahholstsonnichsen/
It was a little difficult to engage fully with the Salt Lake stage of the World Cup this year, living in Europe, as due to someone’s frankly ropey idea of scheduling, the individual matches started past midnight. As a stage, it doesn’t seem to have taken off quite as everyone was hoping; apart from the coverage and the sparse audience, an increasing number of teams skipped it this year and the winds seemed even more capricious than the 2017 outing. No one wants to watch a lottery; although it was noticeable how the very, very best always have less trouble with the wind than others.
But this caught my eye when I was looking through the qualification results. Sarah Sonnichsen, who became the world number one compound archer last year, shot just two arrows out in the desert, then packed up her bow.
Anyone who has been following either of her Instagram feeds this year could not have failed to notice something wrong. She finally put a post up yesterday morning, which I’m going to quote in full:
“This is going to be a very long and honest post. As a lot of people have noticed my score from Salt Lake City is not there and there’s a reason why you can’t see it. As many people also know I’ve really been struggling the past half year or so. I wasn’t feeling good in China, I quit Redding, Turkey was a fight for me and Salt Lake was just too much. 😕 After Turkey I actually took two weeks off from shooting to get some help and I thought I was ready for Salt Lake so that’s why I went here thinking I could handle it but when we had to shoot qualification, the wind was just insane and feeling this way plus the wind and on top of that having a really bad flu was just way too much for me to handle and I completely broke down. No one and I really mean no one should feel the way I felt standing on the shooting line having a complete panic attack.☝🏼 So no I didn’t shoot Salt Lake.
And because of everything there’s going on with me right now I will also be taking a break when I get home. Not from shooting because I still enjoy shooting; I still want to shoot, but I will be taking a break off from shooting competitions for a while until I get my head back to where it’s supposed to be and until I feel completely ready and I get this under control again. I can’t say for how long but I know this is something I have to do for myself. I know I can shoot. I know I’m a good archer. Right now my head is just not in a place where I can shoot what I’m capable of which has shown on most of my results the past 1/2 year. And yes it sucks and I should probably have done this before. But now I’m doing what I need to do to feel better. And hopefully I’ll come out even stronger in the end and I’ll be back to shooting what I’m capable of!😆
People who know me knows this is a really tough decision for me. I’m not good at feeling ‘weak’ and taking a break from archery is not something I’ve ever done before. I usually just push through it. But this time I’ve realized I can’t just push through it. My mind and body is just saying no. I need to take care of myself right now but don’t worry! You guys aren’t gettin rid of me so easy. I will be back!🤣”
It’s a salient reminder that archery as a sport doesn’t exist in a bubble, and depression and mental illness can strike anyone, anywhere, no matter how effective or successful or professional. People are archers, but they are also human; and they have plenty more to deal with as well as competition. Given it is a sport which relies on a iron-cast mental game, raised at will to compete at the highest level, it makes me wonder just how many other archers are suffering (I know of at least two others dealing with similar issues in one way or another).
I hope its needless to say, but everyone is looking forward to seeing Sarah back in competition as soon as she’s well enough to compete.
Antalya has been and gone, and for archery fans, was a far more gripping spectacle than Shanghai. Holding the competition a few weeks earlier than normal spares the peleton from the beginnings of the worst of the summer coastal heat, when temperatures of 40°C are not unknown. A steady-ish 28°C is about the limit of what you can sit outside all day and still function at the highest level (that’s me, not the archers) and it turned out that you can do a lot of special things when everything is just right, as the recurve qualification results came in on Monday afternoon, just as the sun started dropping behind the stadium, as the light started to spread.
I’m watching the scores come in like boats returning to harbour, and two names: Kim Woojin and Kang Chae Young, are consistently above the red line that indicates the world record average. And they stay there. I run to the men’s end of the field with cameraman Gwenael to get the story. Woojin had been shooting one of the most extraordinary back nines ever. He needed 59 from his last six arrows to break his own world record, set in similar warm, still conditions at the Sambodromo. His teammates knew it, and began taking the piss as he went up to the line. Ron van der Hoff was kind enough to sit on his scope and called them for me.
First arrow is a nine. Woojin’s face twitches. That slightly quizzical look he’s good at. Second arrow… is a nine, and he rolls his eyes. It did and didn’t mean something. No world record. I see the next arrow, which is clearly shot like he couldn’t give a **** where it ends up. He basically throws the last end away, and it’s still a 352 for a total of 697, which would match the fourth highest score in history. And he’s pissed off.
“Tell me you’re happy!”
We run back to the women’s side, where Kang Chae Young isn’t choking, not for anybody. I watched two of her earlier ends. She looked relaxed, but in a curiously placid way. Just accepting the result. No emotion. Just process. And quick. At one point she was seven points above the world record average.
The finale isn’t dramatic, and ‘just’ a 57. But “The Destroyer” has – very quietly – annihilated the world record. She looks as surprised as everybody else. Her scorecard is relentlessly consistent. Relentless consistency is Chae Young’s stock in trade, and relentless consistency is rewarded in the Korean system, which filters potential frontline teams via multiple gruelling selection tournaments, prizing stamina over flash-in-the-pan brilliance (she rarely finished top of any one day, but didn’t ever finish bottom either). And on this rather lovely afternoon, the least diva-like, most unassuming member of the squad pushes the women’s world record to within 1.3% of the men’s mark.
It wasn’t Bob Beamon’s long jump, but most archery things that are truly remarkable by the sport’s standards are done quietly. It’s something when one of our greater sporting achievements in the last few years is achieved by someone who includes ‘making soap’ as one of their hobbies.
The record that Woojin matches, the fourth* highest ranking round score in history, was shot by Brady Ellison in Shanghai in 2016. Brady Ellison in Antalya in 2018 is not happy. Despite qualifying well, the painful finger problems that have dogged him over the last season and sank the boat in Vegas and Yankton are still there. How are your fingers, Brady? “I’m ready to quit!” he snarls at me. “I’ve shot 100 arrows since Shanghai.” He’s told me (and many other people) several times over the past few years that he intends to quit recurve and return to shooting compound.
Song Yun Soo
But recently, the double-bowing at the Gator Cup and his apparently endemic injury issues seem to indicate he might be serious. If he did, it would leave USA recurve in an even more parlous state, to say the least. I don’t think I’m out of line by saying it’s not looking very strong in depth right now, two years out from Tokyo. There is a lot of work to do to get two USA teams qualified next year.
The rest of the qualification rounds are relatively unremarkable. By the time Friday rolls around, the glorious sunshine has given way to thunder and rain, soaking the first couple of rounds on Baki Beach, a few miles further down the coast than the normal venue, which is being reconstructed. The Korean men take clinical, disciplined revenge on the USA for Shanghai. It’s an incredibly controlled, classy display. The USA’s cause is not helped by Braden Gellenthein, anchoring, who has decided to shoot a brand new bow. Which he set up last night. And seems to be only capable of shooting nines. He falls apart, and Kris goes with him. It’s carnage.
Then Yeşim Bostan finally breaks her ‘silver medal curse’ and wins on the beach, in front of deafening home support. It’s no secret that her attempts so far have been sunk by terrible performance anxiety; her qualification rounds have been clinical, but on a stage, she’s had trouble – e.g. this shootoff arrow in Rome, if you can bear it. There was only the tiniest hint of the same nerves on the beach, although she didn’t make it look easy. I think now that she’s got past that, the rest of this year may bring some serious silverwa… some serious titles. (I also think Tan Ya Ting might go on a winning run when she finally takes a major gong). The day finishes with a horrible gold match between Mike Schloesser and Kris Schaff that neither of them, apparently, want to win. Compound at its most neurotic and depressing.
Recurve Saturday brings bizarre winds, and endless second guessing. I took some pictures. The wind is coming from the sea, but the arrows are posting to the right. Also, the way the venue is set up gives a kind of optical illusion to the horizon. Archers seem to be leaning to compensate. The local crew have done pretty well, but it’s pretty difficult making a completely flat arena on a sloping stone beach. Almost a field archery problem. Germany’s women, once they get going, are only narrowly beaten by Korea, who are barely better.
The GBR men take a deserved medal against Malaysia, helped along by the collapse of the Malay second shooter. The Brits had to change their flight as they were booked to return Saturday; ArcheryGB apparently deciding that it was unlikely that any of them would make a final. I’ve long mulled over the financial and psychological ramifications of doing this. The team looks good. Seems like there must be better options available. Then Japan’s men push Korea’s men hard, especially in the last two sets. The result is as expected, but something seems to be in the air.
Turkey thump Chinese Taipei in recurve for a bronze. It’s a stunning coup really. They deserve it. They outshoot them. Then the real upset comes, as Japan sweep aside Korea for mixed team gold. Hyejin looks exhausted. There’s something in her face, waiting to go on, that says she doesn’t want to be there. Like, she’s had enough. Japan look great, Korea look bad.
Then Lei Chien-Ying, who seems to be de facto captaining the Taipei women these days, looked incredibly confident and dominant in her dismantling of Lee Eun-Gyeong. Probably, quietly, the performance of the day. Watch it again. She knows she’s going to win. Two losses, and she walks back on like she has it won anyway.
When Perova walks on, you could sort of sense the repeat of Mexico waiting to happen, and after the first end, you pretty much knew it was going to. I’ve written before about Perova, and her brutalist approach to archery; her technique is ugly, but effective, and she seems to be utterly free of any self-doubt whatsoever at one crucial moment: whenever she steps onto the line. It may be a Russian cliche, ‘do or die’. But it works. And so it proves. It’s a scrappy, dreadful match really, and by the denoument, you just knew the shoot-off was only going one way. Perova defends her title, and Korea have lost three recurve finals in a row.
Chang just looks glad that it’s over. The Korean Archery Association, in their infinitely opaque wisdom, have decided that she and Woojin are the mixed team this year, not basing it on ranking round scores like most (but not all) archery nations.
The problem is that if she has to pull a triple shift like today – team, mixed team and individual – the familiarity of the arena is outweighed by the exhaustion of maintaining focus over such a long day of shooting, outdoors, in the heat, with all the noise and expectation around you. It’s a lot of weight on some very tiny shoulders.
The day before, So Chaewon had had to pull a quadruple shift: team, mixed team, individual and then make-up retouched and back out to accept the Longines prize. A lovely problem to have, but the poor girl was sitting with her head in her hands by the end. It’s more work that it looks.
The day finishes with the Korean men putting on a masterclass, and a showcase match of almost sublime quality between Lee Woo Seok and Kim Woojin. The sight of three white shirts on the podium rather smooths over the fact that Korea lost three in a row. I twice watched an assembly of archers and coaches from [major archery nation] cheering loudly when Korea got thumped. You felt the actual quality hadn’t gone, but the big Asian and other nations that can match them in technique must be emboldened. Their knack of just winning seemed to desert them.
It remains, of course, to be seen whether any of the other Asian squads will be able to ‘do the big job’ and snatch gold in Jakarta. But some of the spell seemed have gone away by the end of the day. Korea will be absent from the Salt Lake stage. Which means Berlin will be very interesting indeed.
So many other things I could tell. Which [famous archer] ‘forgot’ to do their media interview, and left the venue, despite the interview having been pre-sold to [name of TV channel] in [country] and had to be ‘recalled’ by a rather important member of the archery community? Who got involved in a thrilling altercation at an airport? Which [gender] team from [major archery nation] finished Saturday pounding so many beers by the Rixos pool that two of them had to walk one of their very unsteady coaches back to their room? But unfortunately, I’m bound by the same rules that apply to bands: what happens on tour, stays on tour. You’ll just have to wait till I see you next. 🙂
*This originally said that it was the third highest score in history. Thanks to Nick Taylor-Jones for pointing out that the third highest was Kim Bubmin’s 698 at London 2012, unfortunately and unluckily overshadowed by Im Dong-Hyun breaking the record with 699 at the same event.
In a frankly worrying development for US archery, a New York assemblywoman called Linda Rosenthal, is trying to get a bill passed in the local legislature that would ban all shooting sports – including archery – as part of a crackdown on ‘gun culture’. Rosenthal says she introduced her bill after reports that the suspect in the Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, Florida, Nikolas Cruz, honed his gun skills through a program in the same school where he’s accused of killing 17 people. As Time magazine noted:
Rosenthal’s bill would also ban school archery programs, which are promoted by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation and include 34,000 students in 320 schools.
Janna Recchio of Rome in central New York said her 11-year-old daughter, Gina, was introduced to archery in fifth-grade gym class in January and just two months later was able to qualify for the national tournament in Louisville, Kentucky.
“It’s a great hobby for her,” Recchio says. “She’s very focused, controlled and calm.”
Without getting into the wider debate around gun culture in the US, this is a terrible development, because it lumps our sport in as merely part of a bundle of ‘shooting sports’, when it is (while related) for almost all intents and purposes something completely different from gun sports. While a handful of national federations (e.g. Germany) bring archery and shooting under the same umbrella, in most cases these are separate both logistically and often culturally too.
Worse, it it merely indicative of a general public ignorance around archery and a political desire to paint in broad brush strokes, rather than actually tackling the problem at hand. I don’t know much about archery in New York state – I’ve only been to Gotham Archery in NYC, and that is an indoor commercial range in the same, very very safe vein as many modern shops around the world – but getting rid of a junior program with that many people is obviously an appalling idea.
I am personally very ambivalent about crossbows, although I admit know very little about modern crossbow shooting. (You can decide for yourself if crossbows are or are not archery). Am very sure that crossbow groups are as safely run and well-organised as any other, but several recent high profile incidents in the UK have gone some way to reinforcing the general public notion that crossbows are dangerous and mostly bought by idiots. The problem is that archery as a collective community – from clubs to governing bodies – have little to gain by welcoming crossbows fully into the fold. Archery’s stock, as a sporting brand, is still in the ascendant, and any increase of the public perception that ‘archery is dangerous’ is only going to hurt that.
Whatever happens in New York state, it is a reminder that modern archery exists in many places because of public perceptions of its utility and safety, and we as a community need to be continuously vigilant to make sure that people are educated about the sport.
Shanghai came and went. The firmest fixture on the circuit, as they say. I was sad not to be there, but the jet lag is a nightmare and if you’d stood outside breathing the air for a week and felt the hacking cough develop at the top of your throat, you might want to skip it next year too. It’s also a tricky one as a spectator in Europe, because the team finals start at three o’clock in the morning in Europe, and even dedicated archery nerds like me are going to struggle to pull that off on a Sunday morning. (Full disclosure: I set the alarm, but gave up).
If there was a theme it, was: the big Asian teams have something on the agenda. The recurve category was notable for resurgent performances by Japan and especially the host nation China, who have been relatively quiet on the international scene since an indifferent Olympics. (I heard a rumour that huge numbers of Chinese Olympic athletes had been put on winter sports programs in advance of Beijing 2022, and I wondered if they’d got the archery team too). The quadrennial Asian Games, being held in Indonesia this year in August, are around the corner, and all the big teams are keen to make a mark.
It’s difficult to explain how big a deal the Asian Games is. The biggest multi-sport event outside the Olympics by some considerable distance, it is the ultimate sport-as-substitute-for-war; played out against a background of fierce historical and geopolitical rivalries, especially for the biggest nations: Japan, China, and South Korea. It has a lot of internal history too, running since 1951, with archery an event since 1978.
The Korean team count an individual medal at the Asian Games as part of their fabled ‘triple crown’ of archery success: Olympic individual gold, a World Championship title, and a gold medal at the Asian Games. (If I have this right, many have come close, but the only person to achieve this perfectly has been Park Sung-Hyun). It’s a second Olympics, really. A soccer analogy, if you’re in Europe, would be the status of the European Championships against the the World Cup. It’s almost right up there.
Peng Chia-Mao Photo: World Archery
On the finals stage, the Indonesian mixed team of Ega Egatha Riau and Diananda Choirunisa put in something very special indeed to deny the USA a bronze medal, showing seriously high quality on the stage. Vanessa Landi was fantastic, too. The women’s team final is worth another look. Chinese Taipei, who must be getting pretty sick of their reputation as ‘almost as good as Korea’, seemed to show a bit more composure on the stage, and kept things a lot tighter than before. They were probably a bit unlucky to lose. With Lei Chien Ying back in form and on frontline duties after a personal decline in 2016 and 2017, it’s just, just possible they could finally push past their great rivals in white, who, unfortunately, looked as good as ever. The trouble with Korea, is even when they seem really under threat, they have an incredible knack of pulling matches out of the bag.
Chang Hyejin is now firmly established in her role as both captain and anchor, as the senior hand. She was executing incredibly well, with a pace and crispness to her shot that reminded me of the day she won in Rio. The businesslike momentum of someone at the very, very top of their game. And she managed to give everyone a moment of pure joy with the second end of her individual final: three in the x ring barely three centimetres apart. Watch it again here. I sensed we haven’t seen the last of the silver medallist An Qixuan either.
The changes in finals structure with the ‘inline’ medal ceremonies immediately after category events, trialled in Yankton, was a resounding success watching as a spectator – keeping the crowd in their seats, speeding up the processes of athlete wrangling, and breaking up the day nicely.
The other big change was the Falco Eye output, showing the grouping of the arrows, finally made part of the production graphics. It’s still fairly rudimentary, but I’m really excited about it; I think it is going to be a powerful tool to increase archery as a spectator sport. Archery is woefully short of live statistical analysis at the moment. Imagine, after a team match, being able to instantly rank players, award a man of the match trophy, and prove who was the strongest. It’s going to be really, really important.
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.