Archery in Colombia: 10 out of 10
Written in may 2018
In the Sara José López archery range located in Pereira (Colombia), two rows of archers shoot over a line of targets. They point to a yellow dot, which fifty meters away - half a soccer field- , seems the size of a lentil. The target is like a Russian doll as it contains nine concentric circles. Putting an arrow in the yellow lentil, which is worth 10 points, has nothing to do with luck.
Archers who are partners, but also adversaries in individual competitions, train side by side. Alejandra Usquiano, Nora Valdez, Camilo Cardona and Sara López belong to the Colombian team of compound bow.
The characteristic whiplash of the strings released is the same that once upon a time thousands of archers produced when they throwed a rain of arrows over the battlefield. The athletes, like the archers of ancient ages, are formed in interspersed rows: while the first row shoots, the second row rests. Next to the field, an electronic stopwatch begins the 20 seconds countdown, which is the time they have to release the arrow. The pace of the shots is constant but not neglected; precision and efficiency, the maximum of archery.
Anyone can practice archery but discovering the vocation is usually casual. Heber Mantilla was in a hardware store looking for slabs. It turned out that the president of the archery league was the owner of the hardware store and invited him to take a look at the shooting range. He hadn't seen a bow in his life ever before. So far he had always played sports with a ball, shoes or a borrowed bicycle. Suddenly he stumbled with archery, he was offered to keep the bow and naively accepted, not knowing that 23 years later he would train the Colombian national team of compound bow.
Alejandra Usquiano, champion of the 2013 World Cup, wanted to be part of a basketball team, but the team was already complete. For a while she didn't know what to do. Today is number 28 in the world ranking of a sport that she entered almost by chance. While she was looking for a sport to practice she heard that archers were needed in the femenine archery team. She tested her first compound bow and she felt in love by the sensation of the tensioned rope, the firm bow in her hands, the sound and the vibration produced by the shot. The power of the bow.
Sara López discovered her passion when she attended to her brother's trainings of archery. She was thirteen years old and her dream was to become a doctor. Archery seemed to be a sport totally different to every other sport she had seen before. There was almost no female participation. For Sara Lopez this was a challenge to overcome; to stand out among men. Almost ten years later she holds the record of winning the world cup of archery five consecutive times.
Sara López explains that feeling good in front of the target is key to not get distracted. That's why they wear sweatshirt and t-shirt: "If you are shooting and you feel something is wrong, that will influence the scores", says the archer. A distraction can also be a butterfly or the weather; if the archer loses concentration he must lower the bow and aim again. “It is a complete alignment of mind, body and technique. It doesn't matter who is next. The mind has to be focused in that rounded yellow spot ”, explains Emma Gaviria, president of the Federation of Archers of Colombia (Fedearco). More than a physical training, archers must have a mental training.
Just as James Rodríguez or Andrés Iniesta study their mistakes in the recordings of their matches, the five-time world champion of compound bow carefully analyzes the videos of her competitions and analyzes her shots. "You always have to look for mistakes in the archer, not in the bow," he says.
The goal is to achieve perfection, explains Heber Mantilla, the coach. “If you shoot an arrow and it drops to an eight, that means not passing an exam. They study to get the best grade: the ten ”. Because this is not a sport about competing with others, this is about individual results. In fact, López, the Colombian who occupies the first place in the women's world ranking of compound bow, is not so worried about getting the gold but to score below her usual mark. The fight is against her own scores.
"Strong and confident," Mantilla says as he watches her shoot. With that phrase he encourages her in competitions and training. The arrow hits the center, it's a 10, but she doesn't flinch. In her mind there is only room for the next shot. The archer watches the 20-second stopwatch and checks the sky; no changes of light, wind or birds nearby. The archer exhales and aims again. The arrow flies again, like it does hundreds of times a day.
Like hundreds of archers who belong to the 17 departmental leagues across the country, Sara trains daily, but she also studies. As a high performance athlete and a student in a career as demanding as medicine, she has had to cancel subjects and semesters to complete competitions and trainings; "I see one semester per year and study online what they teach in class, but I don't ever give up" says the athlete. For her, becoming a doctor is similar to the discipline of his sport: it requires patience, perseverance and mental strength. That's why she doesn't plan to stop shooting or give up on her career. "Every day you have to study, every day you have to train", she says.
María Emma Gaviria, president of the Colombian Federation and vice president of the World Federation of this discipline, is aware of the additional sacrifice that archers must make. “It takes eight or nine years for a high performance athlete to finish his career; two subjects per semester ”he explains. But although it takes longer, it is not impossible. Gaviria also explains that archery, rather than a sport, is a lifestyle; it involves an objective, a discipline and a strategy you have to follow to reach a goal.
“Being a good archer does not happen overnight. It took me four years to achieve an acceptable level. It has nothing to do with age, gender, weight, or being athletic. It's about being constant and calm when you are shooting”, says Lopez.
Passport to the world
Since she started competing seven years ago, Sara López has visited three continents and several countries: China, Turkey, Italy, Mexico. Although Lopez is excited about the victory - she has 25 gold medals - she enjoys way more filling her passport with stamps. Traveling, meeting people, eating different things and seeing other cultures is another reward. "Winning is obviously cool, but I enjoy winning more experiences," says the athlete. Since she became famous in the World Cups of 2013 and 2014, she has not stopped doing both: travelling and winning. The sport is a “passport to the world,” comments Emma Gaviria, and explains that Sara can travel thanks to the support of the Federation and the sponsorship of private companies.
A World Champion is born
Switzerland is, in fact, one of the key moments in her professional career. It was the country where she participated in her second World Cup final, a competition in which archers from the five continents gathered to measure their skills.
The day of the competition, in Lausanne, Lopez is the first to shoot. In a video that recorded that morning of 2014, the athlete picks up her bow, stands on the firing line and fits an arrow into the rope while she lifts the bow at the same time. She doesn't stop to think. There is not much time, she has 20 seconds. The archer opens the bow quickly, but not effortlessly: tightening the rope is equivalent to lifting 26 kilos.
In the fifth and final round, Sara has a point of advantage. Only two arrows left. The Colombian tenses the bow. She doesn't breathe, she just blinks. With a pulse of a doctor who takes the scalpel, she holds the rope against her cheek. The whistle sounds and it's a ten. Erika Jones, her adversary, gets the same score. Although it is only one point below, in archery, that is the difference between losing and winning.
There is only one arrow left. Jones opens her bow and points. A slight turn of the wrist or a soft wind can ruin the shot. Jones releases the arrow with some abruptness. It is a nine. Lopez has the rope on her cheek. Eight seconds, a whistle, and the arrow sticks with a dull impact. Lopez exhales and smiles. It's a 10. Sara López has won a World Cup.
A young sport with a lot of potential
At the end of that competition, Colombia appeared on the world cup podium for the second time in history. The previous year, also Colombian Alejandra Usquiano had taken the title.
But the archery history in the country did not start there, nor were the results spontaneous. Since the creation of Fedearco in 2001, the medals have been accumulating. Colombia was champion in the 2006 Central American games in Cartagena. Two years later, the country qualified for the Olympic Games of Beijing , London 2012, Rio 2016 and soon Tokyo 2020. Two years ago, in Mexico, the Colombian women's compound bow team was the champion; the masculine, got the bronze.
The key was planning, says Emma Gaviria. Five years after the Federation was founded, she asked the Olympic committee to bring a Korean coach to teach the Colombian team. At that time it was said that he was the best paid coach in Colombia, not even cycling coaches who already had a medal earned so much. A part of the expense was covered thanks to an agreement between the Federation and the Olympic Committee, the rest of the expense was covered by selling homemade snacks. "In Colombia there is support if you have medals, if you don't have any it's very difficult. We needed medals, and to have medals we had to have coaches and talents progressing. There were little talents, but there were there”, says Gaviria,
Getting medals meant learning from the country where archery is a profession, Korea. It is not a coincidence that the archers who occupy the first positions in the world rankings are Koreans. In that country, archery is like football for us in Colombia, it is the national sport. Today the sport has grown in the country. In 2012 there were 7 leagues in the country, six years later there are 17 leagues, that means the sport is practiced in 17 departments. It is a sport that is growing.