Miscellany — From the August 2016 issue

Arrow Heads

Living in archery

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When an Olympic archer readies to shoot, she is staring down a distance of seventy meters — roughly three quarters of a football field — and aiming to hit a circle the size of a CD. An elite archer does not grip her bow tightly, fearing what anxious jitters might do; she attaches it to a string that wraps around her hand, extends her arm forward, and holds the bow in place with the skin between her thumb and index finger. As she draws, more than forty pounds of resistance weighs on her fingers and back, and her bow stores so much energy that if she were to fire without an arrow the bow could break at both ends. The physical strain is never evident on her face, which remains in stern repose as she brings the string back to the same spot on her lips as the shot before and the shot before that. It presses against her mouth, pulling it into a frown, as if she were afflicted with a temporary bout of Bell’s palsy.

Photographs from the second round of the U.S. Olympic trials for archery, April 17 –21, 2016, in Chula Vista, California, by Benjamin Lowy

Photographs from the second round of the U.S. Olympic trials for archery, April 17 –21, 2016, in Chula Vista, California, by Benjamin Lowy

She must hold steady — moving her release point by more than the width of a ballpoint pen would result in a miss. This is difficult enough on a good day, but arrows are not bullets. They dip under the weight of raindrops and veer in a gust of wind, which can force an archer to aim entirely off the target, a compensation process that has been referred to by the acronym S.W.A.G., which stands for Scientific Wild-Ass Guess. Once an archer is confident in her position, her chest and shoulders will stretch ever so slightly — a moment known as expansion, which is attributed variously to breath, a muscular contraction, or a shift in blood pressure. At this point, her skeleton is aligned from her left hand, which holds the bow, to her opposite elbow, which is behind her ear. A tiny mechanical clicker on her bow will snap, letting her know that everything is in its proper place, and it’s time to let go.

When an arrow is loosed, it does not fly straight; it wriggles like an eel. From bow to target, it will arc to a height of about ten feet, traveling at 150 miles per hour, and arrive at its destination in one second. To anyone standing along its path, a passing arrow sounds like a viper hissing as it leaps forward to bite its prey. The archer stands and watches, a portrait of serenity hiding a tremor, while her string bounces back and forth like a snapped rubber band. Her bow, still attached to her hand, tips gently forward, as if genuflecting before what is almost certainly another well-struck bull’s-eye. Olympic archers regularly split one another’s arrows, and though none would recommend trying to shoot an apple off anyone’s head, they are confident in their ability to do so without bloodshed at anything less than a hundred yards.

Or so it should go. “Something isn’t right,” Mel Nichols, an Olympic coach, said as he watched Khatuna Lorig, one of the best archers in the world, shoot earlier this year. She had just pulled the string to her lips, induced a frown, and then lowered her bow without firing. Lorig is a native of Georgia, a former Soviet republic, and a five-time Olympian with three countries, most recently the United States. She has long blond hair and an aquiline nose that stretches toward her target, and was wearing a skintight Nike T-shirt that was apparently not skintight enough: she had attached a safety pin to keep any loose fabric out of her string’s path. Lorig took a deep breath, raised her bow again, and held steady for ten seconds.

HA059__03HE0-1Lorig was preparing to try out for the Olympics, which will take place this month in Rio de Janeiro. Archery is in the middle of an unprecedented boom: membership in USA Archery, the sport’s national governing body, has quadrupled since 2011, and youth participation has quintupled. But more shooters means more competition, and because archery is a sport with almost no margin for error, both within an individual shot and over a career, Lorig was in danger of not making the Olympics if she couldn’t get it together.

A full minute went by before Lorig finally loosed an arrow, which missed her target, wide right. “If you’re confident, you step up there, you shoot, and you’re done,” Nichols said, shaking his head. “That’s either panic or anxiety, or maybe it’s a little bit of both.” An elite archer told me that the tension between body and mind is so great that during a competition he once lost the feeling in his arms. All archers can do is try desperately to keep their thoughts from spinning entirely out of control.

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