Once again, The Vegas Shoot surpassed itself, and the largest festival of archery ever held passed off with superlatives bursting everywhere.
It hasn’t always been this way. From small beginnings in the 1960s, with occasional indoor archery competitions held in various casinos, the competition that would become known as the Vegas Shoot grew very slowly, attracting 800 archers in 1979 and then seeing a long lull in entries during the 1980s, when it was held at the Tropicana casino, one of the oldest establishments in the city – during which time, the iconic three spot target and the famous shootdown was developed. It wasn’t until the National Field Archery Association took over in 2000 that entry numbers started to gradually rise again, and even then, it remained a niche event.
The real explosive growth has been since 2014, when the event saw 2000 archers register for the first time, with the compound professional division won by Mike Schloesser – the first non-North American to win the main event. By this time the event had moved again to the cavernous South Point hotel, with its exhibition halls built for rodeo events and huge capacity for expansion.
In 2019, the final entries numbered 3767, from nearly 50 countries and every state in the USA, and the organisers are gearing up for 4000 next year. That doesn’t include thousands more coaches, parents, friends, vendors and general hangers-on. The lure of a holiday helps; people might shoot one year and go support their friends the next.
The important thing is to be there. The constant increase of numbers is partly due to the loyalty shown to the event; many have returned every year for decades. From a niche American gathering, it has become the international tribal gathering of archery. The World Archery indoor World Cup final is now a cornerstone of the competition and held on the Saturday night.
You can choose to compete in the championship or ‘flight’ divisions in the major bow classes. The championship will see you on the line with the big boys, but the much larger amateur ‘flight’ divisions will see you more likely to earn some money. It’s up to you. The rules are the same for everybody: 30 arrows a day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You can shoot whatever bow you like, and para-archers, juniors, crossbows and horsebows will all share the same line in a long sequence of ‘lines’ that start at 7am – although you can practice literally around the clock – as you can do most other things in Vegas. The unique rules and iconic, idiosyncratic nature of the competition helps foster the camaraderie that characterises Vegas, with new friends made literally all weekend. The practice ranges are jammed to the hilt all day long.
The competition has extended to multiple categories, with this year seeing a separate competition for veterans alongside professional archers for the Break The Barriers charity, which encourages disabled military veterans to shoot. Another unique, and perennial feature is the ‘Practice With The Pros’ event, which allows amateurs to shoot a session alongside the top names in the sport – but only those amateurs under 17 years old.
The Korean professional teams have been turning up in dribs and drabs for years, but appeared in full strength in 2019, with 27 recurve and compound archers including four Olympic champions. It wasn’t a big surprise when the black-clad Hyundai Mobis team ended up dominating the women’s indoor final event, with Sim Yeji beating top seed Kang Chae Young in the final which saw both archers drill 12 tens in a row, with only 14-year-old Casey Kaufhold getting close to the action, finishing a highly creditable fourth.
The men’s recurve title saw a strong, tight match between Steve Wijler and old-hand Brady Ellison, which saw the Dutchman eventually prevail in a shoot-off. Wijler seems to have hardened his ability to win matches recently, and he looked in calmly ominous form heading into a year with a home world championships. “It is amazing,” Wijler said afterwards. “My shooting lately has been a bit rough and it’s great to be back on the podium again. To be honest, I don’t really care who I’m shooting against. If it’s Brady or whoever, I just want to win. It wasn’t my best match but I did enough.”
In the compound indoor final. Russia’s Viktoria Balzhanova beat Sarah Prieels of Belgium by 146-144 and American Kris Schaff dropped only a point in his final over Stephan Hansen, 149-146.
While the indoor World Series finals saw deep quality from mostly familiar names, the Saturday competition is a sideshow for most. The real action is the high-drama compound shootdown on Sunday night, with entry restricted to those who are ‘clean’, i.e. who have shot 900 perfect points over the weekend, plus one ‘Lucky Dog’, the winner of a late-afternoon mini-shootdown of the archers who have scored 899 points. A lot of emphasis and drama is placed on this ‘Lucky Dog’ competition, perhaps because it has lead to two winners in recent years, and this year, it was France’s PJ Deloche who gained the still-slightly-dubious honour.
For the first time in the history of the event, two compound women hit the magic mark of 900 over the three days of competition. So Chaewon of Korea and Sara Lopez of Colombia – both prominent names on the international circuit – shot three perfect rounds of 300 each on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
They faced off in a shootdown in the finals arena on Sunday night, which Lopez won. Two other women: Sarah Prieels of Belgium and Choi Bomin of Korea were also clean going into the final day, but dropped points on the Sunday.
Only three women have previously shot 900 rounds in the history of the event. The first was Mary Hamm in 2004, then Sarah Lance in 2014, and finally Tanja Jensen in 2017.
Neither So nor Lopez were eligible for the final grand prize shootdown contested by the 23 men who also shot 900, which requires competitors to be entered into the compound open championship rather than the women’s compound championship (although women are allowed to enter the open pro class, and several do). Similarly, Keith Trail (USA) shot a perfect score in the compound senior championship, and Trevor Silverson and Connor Sears (USA) shot 900 scores in the compound young adult championship.
This year, a record 23 men shot the perfect 900 score, almost all full-time archery professionals. (Over 70 in the open competition had shot clean on the first day of competition, also smashing a record)).
In a competition of many small rituals, the slow, careful judging and the formal reading out of the scorecards by the elderly black-and-white stripe clad judges is one of the highlights. The format is sudden death; only perfection – three ‘inside out’ tens – will do, otherwise, you are going home. With so many shooting, it took longer than normal to thin the field, but down to the last three, it was Italy’s Sergio Pagni, a previous winner at the 50th edition in 2016, who managed to hold his nerve right until the end and take the $53,000 first place prize.
Long nicknamed the ‘Sultan of Smooth’, Pagni responded in characteristic style when asked about the win : “I took my time and was sure not to miss. I didn’t force the shot and I was confident with the ten.” In a field marked with nerves and neuroses, Pagni stands out as immensely relaxed, and it won him, again, the grandest cash prize in archery of all.
Sara Lopez won the compound women’s shootdown event, beating out fellow 900-point scorer So Chaewon, 29 to 28, in the first end of the first perfect shoot-off in the category. “I’m really proud. I only shot for one week before I came here. I came just to have fun, to train, to work on my technique and I’m just so happy,” said Sara. “I always dreamed about this moment. I always dreamed about shooting a 900, about winning Vegas.”
Back to the (bare) bow
Months before the Vegas shoot, the barebow Facebook groups were buzzing. Could it be? Was it true? Was barebow really getting its own division at Vegas? As soon as registration opened, there was at least a post a day encouraging young and old, new and veterans to sign up and shoot the tournament. And came they did.
For the first time, there would be an official barebow flight. As February 5th rolled around, the South Point Hotel was running full steam. The Vegas Shoot had officially begun. All the same noise and chatter was there. But down below, in a gray, cold arena far more familiar with rodeo, there was something new added to Vegas. Barebow had found a voice.
In the past, barebow shooters have struggled to gain attention and respect from their fellow shooters. Since missing the ten ring isn’t a death sentence, some archers seem to think basic bow archery isn’t as difficult. While recognition has been growing, having our own division is exactly what we needed.
Come Friday, over two hundred shooters lined up with their longbows and recurves to let fly the first arrows of the competition with a fair-sized crowd watching their backs. For some, like Donald and Jack Ish, it was their first time going to Vegas – the two are twins, aged 74. Jack was a member of Break the Barriers, a group dedicated to helping veterans shoot and compete, and through donations, they paid his way to come and shoot. Donald just came to beat his brother.
There were those like Niall McComb, aged 15, from Ireland whose biggest previous competitions were no more than twenty or thirty people. Then there’s Fatemah Ghasempour from Iran – astonishingly, the first person in her country to shoot barebow. Mixed in with these people are some of the top barebow archers in the world, like John Demmer, shooting side-by-side with the rest of them – and it wasn’t because he didn’t want to be there.
Constance Lin, his balemate for the first two days and archer for the UCI team, “learned a lot about good sportsmanship.” she says he gave her advance on equipment, talking to her, and even took a selfie with her, which she gleefully showed off to her friends.
All these people came together for one reason: their love of archery. The only time the range was quiet was when people were on the line. Between ends though, and before and after, the range was constantly echoing with the sounds of laughter. There was none of the serious stomping in silence to retrieve arrows you often see at the South Point. No hissy fits when people were performing subpar. Everyone on that range was friends.
Sunday, the flights broke up and the long barebow found themselves moved out to one of the smaller carpeted halls. But although these people often stood directly between the shooter and the chance at some cash, that didn’t change the atmosphere at all. Those from different flights sat and supported “friends” that they knew only from other competitions. Afterwards, many of them got dinner together.
The sentiment shared by everyone in the room can be summed up easily by Ghasempour: “It’s amazing.” Barebow was here to stay in Vegas.
Additional barebow reporting by Danielle Gerken
Pics by Dean Alberga / NFAA.