August 10, 2021
By Lynn Burkhead
As the glare of the competitive spotlight begins to fade with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games winding down this week, it’s hard not to be disappointed if you’re an archery fan rooting for the red, white, and blue of Team USA.
Despite heading into the 2020 games — this summer’s games were actually postponed from last summer until this year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — with a quiver full of hope, Team USA Archery ended its run short of the podium in all forms of competition.
While winning at an elite level in world class archery competition is hard at any time, and perhaps even more so in the pressure-packed Olympic games, Team USA entered these games brimming with realistic medal hopes thanks to Brady Ellison, the world champion and No. 1 archery on the planet, Mackenzie Brown on the women’s side, and several other talented bowbenders dreaming of medals.
In the end, however, Team USA will leave Tokyo with the same dream, as Ellison continues the search for his elusive first gold medal after four Olympic games. Brown, who shot a couple of archery matches for the ages in Tokyo, will do the same, joining Ellison and the others on Team USA who will jet back across the Pacific, already dreaming of Paris and the 2024 Olympic Games.
Ellison — who won his first two indicidual matches — found himself squared up in the first round of the men’s final against fellow Team USA teammate and friend Jacob Wukie. In the emotionally difficult match of competing against a teammate and friend, Ellison took the first set, then split the next three with Wukie, and closed perfectly with a 30 to advance over Wukie, who finished in 9th place.
In the quarterfinals on Saturday, July 31, 2021, Ellison met up with Turkey’s Mete Gazoz. Gazoz won the opening set 27-26, the pair matched 28s in the next, Ellison took the third 28-27, and the match was square.
But in the decisive set, Ellison opened with a right 8, and followed with another 8 to the left — a couple of slight miscues that would ultimately cost him the match as Gazoz outscored him the rest of the way.
“I shot a good match,” Ellison said in the press release. “I just made one bad shot, that was the right 8 and then I made a mistake of thinking that it should have flight drifted and it was just a bad shot and then I aimed my next one in the middle and shot a left 8.
“That was the only mistake or kind of bad one in the match and if I would have just aimed in that same place, not thinking the wind was different because of the one shot that I held long, I would have shot 10, 10, 8 and it would have been a different match. I’m not really upset, I shot well overall.”
The match played a pivotal role in determining the men’s archery gold medalist in this year's Olympic games as Gazoz went on to claim a 7-3 win over Japan's Takaharu Furukawa in the men's semifinals. While Furukawa would end up winning the bronze medal himself, Gazoz would go on to a golden 6-4 victory over Italy's Mauro Nespoli in the Gold Medal Match, securing the top spot on the podium and leaving Ellison wondering what might have been.
For his part, Ellison remained upbeat despite finishing in 7th place overall at the Tokyo Games and seeing his gold medal hopes dashed again.
“I get to go home and see the family in a few days and it is what it is,” he said.
“I only have three years until the next one instead of four,” Ellison added. “This Games is already behind me. We have nationals in a couple weeks, then field nationals, which is going to be vacation for me because I love shooting field, and then we have world champs on U.S. soil and I can still go and win worlds and repeat that and then World Cup Final, so there’s still a couple of big events to wrap up the year.”
Team USA’s Mackenzie Brown also found heartache a day earlier at the Tokyo Games, missing out on the medal podium after an archery match for the ages. After being the lone U.S. woman representing Team USA at the Rio Games in 2016, Brown made the last five years of preparation the fuel that propelled her through qualification where she ranked 5th in a stellar field and gained a third place individual seeding.
After a heartbreaking loss in the mixed team competition, Brown shook off disappointment and a first set loss on the preliminary match day, rolling to 6-2 and 6-0 wins to advance to the Tokyo Games’ Top 16. Making it through to the final’s day, Brown was dominant on the day when a gold medal would be awarded, splitting two sets with Chinese Taipei’s Chia-En Lin in their match. Brown would win the first and last sets, however, with solid 28s en route to a 6-2 win.
That’s when things got interesting according to the Team USA news release:
“The quarterfinals opened with a loud crack of thunder through the stadium, and Brown threw the lightning,” the news release said. “It was a glorious battle against Mexico’s Olympic Champion Alejandra Valencia, ending in a shoot off. Both archers scored 10s, but Brown’s was closer to the center and she took the win.”
As thrilling as that match was, the semifinal match between Brown and Korea’s An San was even better, one that Team USA noted “…could easily have been the gold medal match, and will go down in history as one of the best shot, most exciting matches in Olympic women’s archery of all time.”
Brown took the first set by a point with a 29, San responded with two perfect 30s while Brown posted 28s. Then Brown responded with a 30 of her own to San’s 27.
At the match’s most pivotal moment, Brown needed a 10 on the final arrow to win, but she let loose a 9 that was out by just one millimeter. Brown drilled a good 9, but San took the shoot off win with an X before going on to win gold.
As Team USA noted, “Brown absolutely left nothing on the table; it was one of those matches where she did not lose, she simply got beat.”
After the disappointing loss, Brown returned to the stage for the bronze medal final against Italy’s 23rd ranked Lucillia Boari. Team USA noted that Boari came to play, and after splitting the first set at 28 each, ran away with the match 29-28, 28-25, and 27-26 for a 7-1 decision and the bronze medal for the 2020 Games.
“I’m very proud of what I did today,” Brown said after the emotional day of competition. “My quarterfinal match was good, I stayed in it the whole time and same with my semifinal match, I was within such a hair’s width away from winning. I never lost focus on any sets and don’t think I gave up at any point. I made good shots. I don’t know if I read the wind wrong or what; I honestly think I made the best decisions I could and stayed focused on the same things I’d been focused on all day.”
On the team side of the Olympic archery competition, Team USA found disappointment despite high hopes entering the games. After winning silver medals in Rio 2016 and London 2012, the U.S. men’s team of Ellison, Wukie, and rookie Jack Williams were hoping for gold in Tokyo. But those hopes were squashed by home team Japan with a 5-1 loss in the quarterfinals of the men’s team competition, a tournament that saw Japan go on to claim the bronze medal.
It was more of the same on the women’s side of team competition where Team USA came into the event seeded No. 3. After a bye that got them through to the quarterfinals, the team was knocked out in three sets by the No. 6 Russia Olympic Committee (ROC) team, which won the event’s silver medal.
And on the mixed team side of competition — an event that made its debut in Tokyo — the No. 2 seeded U.S. team of Ellison and Brown was stunned in a first round upset as No. 15 seeded Indonesia upset the Americans in a shoot-off.
“I’m still a little shocked, to be honest,” Ellison said (in a quote in the Team USA news release, one attributed to World Archery, after the loss). “I completely expected us to win a medal today. That finals venue, compared to familiarization, kicked my ass. I just didn’t see it and that cost us the match.”
So, Team USA Archery — which came into the games hoping to win multiple medals and perhaps even a gold or two — will exit Japan and remember the 2020 games for reasons far different than Olympic glory.
A worldwide pandemic, months of uncertainty, and a fan-less Olympic experience — not to mention the tricky winds of the venue and competition — all added up into a performance that will send the American archers back to the drawing board.
Paris and its long-awaited Olympiad is but three years away, and for Team USA Archery — still smarting from a few upset unexpected defeats in Tokyo — those 2024 Summer Olympic games can’t get here quickly enough.