It should come as no surprise that the most popular book-turned-movie this year, The Hunger Games, has inspired a new crop of young athletes. And they’re armed.
USA Archery reports record-setting enrollment in their youth divisions, with the number of cadets (ages 15-17) peaking at nearly every national event in the past two years. Maybe Hunger Games’ bow-wielding heroine, Katniss Everdeen, inspired them. Or maybe the football team was full. Regardless, Glendale native Brady Ellison can say he joined the sport before it was cool.
Ellison was 19 years old when he competed on the U.S. archery team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Four year later, he hopes to quality for the Summer Games in London. And as his No. 1 world ranking would indicate, that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. “I knew I could make the [Beijing] Olympic team,” the archer says. “I plan on making a lot of Olympic teams. I want to make five or six Olympic teams.”
Good thing he’s had 11 years of experience and the requisite childhood struggle to test his mettle. At age 5, Ellison was diagnosed with Perthes disease, a degenerative condition affecting the hip joints that forced him to spend a year in leg braces, à la Forrest Gump. In 2008, he underwent corrective hip surgery after returning from the Olympics. He shakes his head nonchalantly when asked if the disease ever gets in his way. “It didn’t slow me down. If I want to do something, I’m going to do something.”
But you’d be wrong to peg the shaggy-haired Ellison – who got his start in archery by bow hunting with his dad – as just another cocky athlete. In fact, when asked if he ever uses “I’m an Olympic archer” as a pick-up line at the bars, he takes the high road. “I don’t care what sport you’re in or how high you are, I don’t think you should ever not be humble,” he says. “I have a real problem with pro athletes mouthing off and saying they’re the best. You can be confident, but let how good you are speak for you.”
Ellison was born in Payson, moved to Glendale in 8th grade and graduated from Mountain Ridge High School. He rode horses on his grandfather’s ranch and says if he hadn’t become an archer, he’d be competing in cross-country horse racing. Or golf. Archery, like golf, is a body-control sport, he says. “At 77 yards, you have to shoot three arrows into a three-inch circle. It’s hard."
The Summer Games will see 128 archers compete in recurve archery at the Lord’s Cricket Ground in London. Recurve refers to the type of bow used – its tips curve away from the archer when strung – and it’s the only discipline used in the Olympics. Unlike some sports, there is no age limit to compete as an archer in the Olympics. Those currently competing for a spot on the Olympic team range from 14 to 56.
Ellison lives at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California and trains six days a week from sunrise until sunset to optimize his chances of taking home an Olympic gold medal. That honor escaped him in 2008, when Canadian Jay Lyon eliminated him in a second-round head-to-head match-up.
However, Ellison has dominated international competition the past four years. Powered by six gold medals at official world-ranking events, and first place in the World Cup Final, Ellison ended 2011 as the top-ranked archer in the world. So, what changed? “Well, for one, confidence,” he starts, implying that he found some. “But mainly what happened was I gave it all up to God, whether I was going to win tournaments or not. I believe we have a plan and God will take care of us.”
His faith, he says, has made him unafraid of failing. “It’s getting over that fear of going where no one’s ever gone before.”
Hopefully, that place will be the 2012 Olympics medal podium in London. His mom, Julie Nichols, has the plane tickets booked and the hotel rooms reserved for herself, Ellison, two sets of grandparents and a slew of others. “We are all set and ready to go,” Nichols says. “The rest is up to Brady and, knowing Brady, it’s going to be one heck of a fun ride.”
No pressure, though. Ellison affects Zen cool at a recent practice at the Ben Avery archery range in Phoenix. He explains that a light day means shooting 200 arrows. When the days get longer, he’ll shoot up to 500 a day. Training for archers can also involve cardio to maintain a low resting heart rate during high-pressure competition, as well as strength training regimens to promote balance, flexibility, stability and core strength.
As the world’s No. 1, Ellison knows there’s a target on his back, too. “Italy’s got a couple of good shooters,” Ellison says. “Korea’s always tough. Once we get there, [the question] is ‘Who’s going to step up?’”
The competition will be fierce but not disrespectful. One does not trash-talk in Olympic locker rooms, Ellison says. It’s about camaraderie and sportsmanship. “It’s the only place in the whole entire world where you have so many different countries who don’t like each other, and you stand side by side as competitors and friends,” he marvels. “To me, that’s something special.”
When Ellison talks, his mother smiles so widely, you can almost feel the beams of approval burning the back of your neck. Nichols (email address: “archerymom”) couldn’t be more proud of her son. “Every parent wants their child to find their niche, to have something in their life that they are passionate about,” she says. “Brady has been blessed that his job is his passion, that archery has given him so much and that he is happy.”
And, she admits, she’s a crier. “I always cry when he is at the top of the podium and they play our national anthem... It never gets old.”
Be the Bowman
To appreciate archery, it’s helpful to know the jargon. For instance, “boss” is the target. And an archer can also be known as a bowman – or bowwoman, if you must. Here are some more archery terms to keep in mind for the Games.
Recurve. This is the only type of bow featured in the Olympics. A recurve bow curves away from the archer when strung, which gives the arrow more energy and speed.
Compound. This is a more modern bow. It involves a levering system of cables and pulleys to bend the upper and bottom part of the bow. It’s used in hunting.
Longbow. Long and lean, these rudimentary bows don’t have all the fancy bells and whistles of compound bows and are more difficult to shoot, but some archers like them because of this extra challenge.
Nock. A notch at the end of the arrow that rests against the bow string.
Quiver. The container that an archer keeps his or her arrows in.
Bowyer. The person who makes the bows.
Fletcher. The person who makes the arrows.
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