Grizzled veteran" isn't a term often used to describe a 27-year-old, but that's exactly what Brady Ellison is on the U.S. Olympic archery team.
A full 10 years into his professional career, Ellison has firmly established himself as one of the most decorated recurve archers in history, with accomplishments that include multiple world championships, more than three dozen World Cup medals (including more than 20 first-place finishes) and an Olympic silver medal from the men's team competition at the 2008 London Games.
So, on the eve of his third Summer Games, Ellison acknowledges he isn't going to Rio solely to represent his country. He's also hoping to cement a legacy he's been building since high school.
"It's really the only major international event I haven't medaled in individually," Ellison said of the Olympics. "I need to win a Games. I know that you kind of need that on your resume if you want to go down as one of the greats. So, there is a little pressure there."
The 2016 version of Ellison is older than the one that made its Olympic debut at the 2004 Beijing Games (at age 19) and the one that reached the podium in London (at age 23). But Ellison believes the 2016 version is also wiser, prompting him to take a somewhat more laid back approach to preparing for this summer's Olympic archery competition, which will take place Aug. 6-12.
"I've been doing this since I was 17 full-time. Halfway through my junior year of high school, I moved to the Olympic Training Center in California and since then I've been shooting and training six days a week, anywhere from four to eight hours a day, and traveling for tournaments on top of it," Ellison said.
"One of the mistakes people make with the Olympics, and I've made it in the past, is thinking because it's the Olympics you need to train so much harder and work so much more to get ready. And then you get there and you're burned out.
This year, I've moved back home to Arizona and will be training here, just normally. I won't be doing anything more than I would for a World Championship or a World Cup. I know the scores I need to be shooting to be competitive, and now I can€‰€¦€‰have a more balanced life and do some fun things I like to do."
Ellison's 2016 Olympic run could also get a boost from a new stability in his personal life. After winning The Vegas Shoot world championship in January, Ellison proposed to longtime girlfriend Toja Cerne, a Slovenian compound shooter. The pair wed in May, creating quite an archery power couple. Ellison is currently ranked No. 2 in the world among men's
recurve shooters, while Cerne is ranked No. 11 among women's compound shooters.
"I have an amazing wife," Ellison said. "She pushes me to be a better archer and person. This is the happiest I have ever been."
Whether it's the move back home or the wedded bliss, there is no arguing with the results. Heading into Rio, Ellison is arguably shooting better than ever. In addition to winning The Vegas Shoot, Ellison shot the third-highest score ever recorded (697 out of a possible 720) in the qualification round of a World Cup event in Shanghai, China, in early May. And he followed that feat up later in May by winning the individual gold medal at another World Cup event in Medellin, Columbia.
With the Olympics just weeks away and Ellison at the top of his game, BOWHUNTING caught up with him between training sessions in Arizona. Here's what he had to say:
Q: You represent the United States at a lot of tournaments. But at the Olympics, is there an added senses of pressure to win those medals for the United States?
Ellison: Definitely. A lot of our funding for the next four years is based on how we do at the Games. We do have USA on our backs, so there is just an added wow factor. Instead of having maybe 50,000 or 100,000 people watching a World Cup, you now have millions of people watching you perform. But you still have to treat it like just another tournament.
Q: Another thing you have at the Olympics is all these other athletes running around. You might have a Steph Curry or a LeBron James as a teammate. That's got to be a little surreal.
Ellison: When you get to the Olympics, everyone there — it doesn't matter what sport — is the very best, and the level of respect the athletes have for each is tremendous. You walk up and you have lunch with Kobe Bryant in Beijing, and it's like, "Hey man, how you doing? " There's Michael Phelps; how many medals has he won? But you're walking around the [Olympic] Village, and they're just people.
Q: What is life like in the days and months leading up to a major competition? How many arrows are you shooting a day?
Ellison: People want to be shooting 350-400 arrows a day, but as I get older, I can't shoot that much anymore. Really, I am putting in about four hours a day, which is anywhere from 200-300 arrows. Some days have to be a little less, as my body gets tired and sore.
I am starting to have more problems with my fingers, so you just have to start training smarter as you get older instead of when you are 18, 20, all gung ho about everything and pushing your body to the limit. I want to keep doing this for 20 more years, so I have to start training with that in mind.
Q: As an archer, how much attention are you paying to nutrition and physical fitness for a sport that might not seem like it relies on that as much as other sports?
Ellison: I am not the skinniest person in the world, but I try to keep my diet to where I'm not gaining weight. I've had Hashimoto's thyroid disease since 2010. For me, it's hard to lose weight. If I got on a bike every day and didn't eat carbs, I'd be slim. But I like a beer with dinner every once in a while, and I like tortillas. So, for me, I am not going to drain my body of what it wants and fight the thyroid thing.
Q:Tell me about winning the team silver medal at the 2008 Games. What's the difference between the team competition and the individual event?
Ellison: In London, we (Ellison, Jake Kaminski and Jacob Wukie) kind of set out to win a team medal over individual medals, and the reason was, for us, winning a team medal is a little more special because you get to share it with the guys.
You get to share in that experience. We all get to tell our stories, and there's three stories out there now promoting an Olympic medal and our sport. But the individual medal is more prestigious. Of course, the Olympic individual gold is the end all, be all.
Q:You've said many times your personal goal is to be the best archer who ever lived. That's not a modest goal. So, what is your expectation for Rio? Do you consider the Games a failure if you don't reach your goal?
Ellison: My goal for Rio is definitely the same as it was for London — being in position to win a gold medal. But if I don't, I'm still a three-time Olympian, and as a person, I won't consider myself a failure.
Q:What's more exciting, shooting in a big tournament or bowhunting?
Ellison: For me, hunting is a little more adrenaline filled than shooting in the Games, if I want to be honest.
Q: Are you serious? Are you telling me if you make the gold medal match in Rio that your blood pressure is more under control there than in Illinois when a 180-inch buck comes under your stand?
Ellison: Definitely. In a tournament, if you have one bad shot, you can get away with it. You can't do that on the hunting side. Also, I train every single day to go and win the Games, and I'm not training every day to shoot a 180-inch deer. Especially for me, living out here and not being able to hunt back East all the time, it's kind of one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. I haven't been able to draw back on a 180-inch deer yet, but I have been to two [Olympics].
Q: So, it's all a matter of perspective, isn't it?
Ellison: Yeah. You know, Michael Waddell or Cameron Hanes, they look at these big animals all the time. I don't.
Q: So, are you saying guys like that might look up to you from a pure shooting standpoint, but there's a little of that in you looking at those guys on TV?
Ellison: My dream has always kind of been to do what they do. I love bowhunting. My grandpa was a professional guide. My dad has guided, and my whole family has been hunting for generations. That's what is really in my blood, it's what got me into the sport and it's really my true passion.
Q: What are some of the favorite bowhunting experiences you've been able to enjoy over the years?
Ellison: When I was younger and wasn't out in California all the time, I chased a lot of Coues deer and mule deer out at my grandpa's ranch, and that was a lot of fun. I kill a deer every year with my bow here in Arizona. This January, actually, I killed a monster Coues deer. I ended up shooting him after hunting him for about a week, and I was just fortunate to be able to put an arrow in him. I had one trail-camera picture of him, and he ended up being a 128-inch Coues deer, which is pretty big in the Coues deer world.
I went to South Africa one year. I was able to shoot a big kudu and a nyala and a couple warthogs. We got charged by an elephant one day. That was cool. And we saw a couple giant rhinoceroses. And I've been back East a couple times hunting whitetails, and that's a lot of fun. I've been very fortunate to have some good friends who let me hunt. I've done very well in Kansas and shot a big non-typical, and a couple years ago I went hunting in Iowa and saw the biggest buck of my life. He was well over 200 inches, but it didn't even come close to working out.
Q: On the surface, there are a lot of differences between an Olympic recurve bow and a compound bow. Is there a lot of crossover for you, or does it feel a lot different when you put your competition bow down and pick up your hunting compound?
Ellison: I learned how to shoot a compound and competed with a compound before I shot a recurve. So, when I shoot a compound, it's almost like going back to my roots. I start shooting my hunting bow in September or October — 200 or 300 arrows a day to get ready for hunting season. It's still a bow, and it only takes a couple days to start aiming good with it again.
Q: I'm sure people always want your shooting tips. So, what should I work on? How can I become a better bow shot for my hunting?
Ellison: The first thing I tell everyone is practice. Get out there. Shoot your bow. Learn your equipment and learn what you do. And two, calm mind, calm body. What I mean is, don't get frustrated if you are not grouping or shooting the way you want. If you get frustrated and mad, that clouds your judgment and brings the awareness out of your body.
If you are not shooting well, stay calm and really be aware of what all your body is doing — your bow hand, your release, looking through the peep, all that stuff. And if you are paying attention, you will still start to notice the differences in your shot — sometimes I'm dipping my bow, sometimes I'm not, sometimes I have too much pressure on my grip — and then you are able to become consistent because you are paying attention to your body.
The idea behind shooting a bow is we want to be accurate and consistent. Every bowhunter needs to find their own shot, just like every golfer needs to find their own swing.
Q: So, developing that self-awareness allows you to become good at self-diagnosing the problem areas?
Ellison: Exactly. And don't be overly analytical about it. It gets to the point where you are trying to micromanage everything, and that makes it worse. You have to figure out what's wrong, but that doesn't mean everything is wrong. Make the big things correct, and then you can work on the little things.