RIO DE JANEIRO – On the bus to watch Brady Ellison attempt to win men’s individual archery gold for the U.S. for the first time in 20 years, I streamed the U.S. women’s soccer loss in penalty kicks to Sweden. It was super stressful. I yelped when Hope Solo made that tantalizing save. The rest of the bus gave me stink-eye.
But what Ellison and his fellow archers face when they’re tied after regulation makes soccer PKs look as intense a as youth soccer match where half the players are stopping to pick flowers.
Through five sets on Friday, Ellison was tied with Ku Bonchan of South Korea. They were knotted through three sets (29-29, 28-28, 29-29) – including a very close call on an arrow on the line that went Ku’s way – but Ellison shot 8-9-9 in the fourth to fall a point behind. He rallied in the final set, firing a 10 to Ku’s 9 on their final shots.
Which meant it was time for a shootoff.
For the uninitiated, the shootoff consists of two archers firing a single arrow. Whoever gets closest to the middle of their target wins.
(Although we do lament the fact that the archers shoot at separate targets, eliminating the dramatic “shooting an arrow through another arrow to win” thing that’s in every Robin Hood movie. Bummer.)
In soccer, at the very least, there’s a goaltender. There’s the possibility that human error will turn your poor shot into a successful one. But here, it’s an athlete against their mind, their body and, as Ellison would find out, the elements.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s talk about talk about the setup.
The atmosphere was like a monster truck rally. As Ellison and Ku prepared, the speakers at the Sambodromo blared “We Will Rock You” by Queen as the announcer revved up the crowd with the most over the top, rousing setting of the stakes I’ve ever heard, which I’ll paraphrase here:
“IT’S TIME PEOPLE. TWO OLYMPIANS. TWO ARROWS. TWO TARGETS. THE STRESS, THE ANGUISH, THE KNOWLEDGE THAT THEY’VE WORKED THEIR ENTIRE LIVES TO SHOOT ONE ARROW WHOSE TRAJECTORY WILL DEFINE THEIRS. THERE IS NO TOMORROW! SEIZE THE DAY! VICTORY ISN’T ANYTHING, IT’S THE ONLY THING! WE WILL HAVE ONE PLAYING FOR GOLD AND THE OTHER FINDING THE DEEPEST POSSIBLE HOLE HE CAN CRAWL INTO BEFORE THE BRONZE MEDAL MATCH! GAME ON!”
Again, just paraphrasing.
Ellison was up first. He stared down the target, pulled the bow back under his chin. There was a noticeable moment of hesitation before he let the arrow fly, but fly it did, puncturing the target.
“Eight!” called the announcer, as American hearts sank around the stadium.
“It was a little bit windy. Got off my timing, and got off a bad shot,” said Ellison.
His only hope was that Ku could be a little worse. The South Korean stepped up, pulled the bow and sent his arrow.
“Nine!” called the announcer.
Ku would play on, and win 2016 Rio Olympic gold, completing the first four-event sweep in Olympic history of South Korea.
“I wanted to have a game with no regrets later. In every shootout, I had that game,” he said.
But the mental anguish was just starting for Ellison, who saw his gold-medal aspirations devoured with one bad shot. The bronze medal match against the Netherland’s Sjef van den Berg was scheduled for roughly 20 minutes after losing the shootoff.
“I had no time to get back out there. I was still mad about an arrow call that didn’t go my way in that match, too. Then you get right back out there,” he said.
But losing in such dramatic fashion, in such a dramatic spot, weighed on him. Ellison shot another eight on his first arrow, and then another in the second set, in which he shot a 26.
“I was still pissed off about shooting eight. I was thinking in the beginning of the match ‘That should have been a gold.’ And then you realize you’re halfway through a bronze medal match. You have to wake up and focus on where you are now,” he said.
“I walked back after shooting the 26 and I told my coach I needed to get my head back into this match. Quit focusing on the last one. And then I stepped up and shot a 30, and closed out the next set.”
Ellison won the bronze, marking his first Olympic individual medal and the first American men’s individual medal in archery since the 2000 Sydney Games.
“It’s huge to win any Olympic medal,” he said, pointing at Ku. “Although I wish I was sitting where this guy is. The first 10 years of my career is over this year. Hopefully going forward I have another solid 10 years.”
Ellison leaves Rio with the bronze and a silver medal that he captured with teammates Zach Garrett and Jake Kaminski, both of whom he defeated in the individual tournament en route to the bronze medal. His team also won silver in London.
It’s been a long road to an individual medal for Ellison, who is in his third Olympics. He overcame Perthes Disease, a joint disorder he had as a child. He believe God saved his life in a near-fatal crash a few years ago.
“You don’t know how tough you are until tough is the only option you have,” said Ellison, paraphrasing Bob Marley. “It’s an honor for me to represent my country, and stand on that podium twice in one event.”
Even if he had to overcome one of the most emotional extra sessions in sports.
Listen to Yahoo Sports’ Greg Wyshynski podcast from Rio on GRANDSTANDING, featuring U.S. swimming legend Summer Sanders on Michael Phelps, IOC doping and Donald Trump: