Lisa Unruh dazzled her home country in Rio – and hasn’t stopped winning since. We find out how just how she does it.
Lisa Unruh of Germany has already had quite a year. After winning in Las Vegas – twice – she also received the fan-voted Athlete Of The Year award in the South Point arena.
In Yankton in February, she was defending her title at the indoor world championships, but a bout of flu that was spreading throughout the German camp and the rest of the archery peloton put a brake on her individual chances. The women’s team recovered enough to take a remarkable high-pressure victory over the Russian team in Yankton, giving her the world team indoor title to add to a bulging trophy cabinet.
All this was on top of an extraordinary 2017 where she won the World Games title – a field competition – in Wroclaw and took a silver medal in the mixed team at the World Championships, following on from *that* performance in Rio where she took a silver medal with millions watching on TV.
Amazingly, unlike most elite athletes, being an archer is not her job. Officially her job is… police officer. How does that work? “In Germany the Olympic athletes are supported by many companies; among others the federal police. My training was longer than normal, it was split: four months education, and eight months you have time for practice and competition. The education went over four years, and after you finish that you “work” as an athlete. Eleven months of the year you have time for practice and competition and one month you have to work. This is one of the best systems here in Germany and I´m really proud to be a part of this team.” (Several other European nations, notably Italy, have similar arrangements with the police or military and their Olympic programs).
It’s been a long journey for the 30-year-old from Berlin, whose first sport was swimming. “The first Olympics I watched on TV, I was a little swimmer girl and I was cheering for Franziska van Almsick and Antje Buschschulte.
“At the age of 10 I went to the sports school in Berlin [as a swimmer]. After two years I found I didn´t have the kind of progress I had to have, and I was really unhappy. It was a hard time. My mother recognized it and after it became clear I would have to stop being a swimmer, she was searching for a new hobby or sport for me. One of the coaches told my mother that I could started doing archery because I´m strong and tall. So I tried it and I fell in love from the first time. And I still love it! After five months I made the trials for the German championships. ”
Her first start for the national team came in 2003, at the junior World Cup event in Templin in Germany. “My first coach was Valentin Skidanov. He was from Uzbekistan, and he was really strict and a great coach. I learned a lot from him. When I was 15 the junior national coach Martin Frederick was coaching me and my technique was improving in a more stable way. I went further and became a solid archer. With [current coaches] Natalia Butuzova and Oliver Haidn I had my biggest successes, and I´m now on my best level ever.”
Unruh improved steadily as an all-around archer, winning the world field championships in Zagreb in 2014 and two years later the world indoor championships in Ankara, and anchoring an increasingly powerful German women’s team that medalled at multiple World Cups.
But something very big was still missing. “Rio was my third try to go to the Olympics, and it was my biggest dream to compete there. After the national trials it was clear that I was the lucky one who would go to Rio, I was so happy that it had all come true.
“But my problem was that I was unmotivated to shoot because of all the trials and fails with my team.” The German teams had a disastrous day at the crucial tournament in Copenhagen in 2015, with the men and women, despite strong seedings, failing to qualify full teams for Rio. Just one man and one woman would go. “I was sad that I was the only woman shooting for Germany. Nevertheless I enjoyed every moment in Rio and I decided very firmly to make no pressure on myself, no big expectations. I wanted to have fun and do my technique in the best way I can. And it worked!”
In Rio, despite an indifferent ranking round and a slow start, Unruh moved steadily through her bracket to the key meeting with fourth seed and medal favourite Tan Ya Ting in the quarterfinal, which went to a shootoff. By this time, her head was firmly screwed on. “I only remember the shootoff arrows because after Tan Ya Ting shot her arrow – I think it was a seven – I knew I would win it. Normally I never have thoughts like that, but at that moment I was so self-confident in my focus and my technique that I just knew I would shoot a good shot, and it was so.”
It wasn’t the first time Unruh’s mental strength had carried her to victory. “My favourite match was the world indoor championship gold medal match in 2016 against Natalia Lesniak. Before, I just knew I would win the match and become world champion. In the end it was really close, but I was so self-confident I knew I would have a good shoot off arrow, and it was.”
Despite a bad arrow in the semifinal against Alejandra Valencia, she recovered to edge past the Mexican in four sets, to set up the final with Chang Hye Jin. By this time, the German media was in full hype mode, and seven million people in Germany – a little under a tenth of the population – were watching. But despite solid shooting, there was no stopping Chang. “I didn’t lose the gold medal, I won the silver medal,” Unruh said afterwards.
She credits her own mental game with the incredible run. “Honestly, I was so focused on myself I hadn’t had any distracting thoughts like how big the situation was. Of course I recognized the results of my opponents but I didn´t care about that. It was my biggest dream to compete at the Olympics and I was so enjoying every moment, I didn’t wanted to let in any thoughts of pressure.”
The Olympic medal catapulted Unruh into the public eye. “It happened so quickly that it was the first moment I had the feeling I couldn´t handle it. But I think I managed it all in a good way, and I won´t miss it. In my country my role changed because now I´m a little hero for the children and they want tips from me, or some autographs!”
Unruh is currently training for the outdoor season in her native Berlin, which can be tricky in the cold and damp winters. “We have a indoor hall which is nearly 50m long and we have a outdoor field with a small house where you can shoot from inside to outside. Yes, it can get really cold but we have to train to become better and better. It is a pity that we don´t have a indoor 70m hall which would be a bit easier!”
“I shoot six days per week between four and five hours, and after that either I go straight to the gym or go jogging. Three times a week I’m practicing yoga.” Unruh, like an increasing number of elite archers, is using yoga and mindful techniques to stay ahead of the game. “After I started yoga, which includes meditation, focus on breathing and making a better mind-body connection I became more confident and focussed on the things I do. It very much helps me for archery.”
“I think meditation is important to hold the focus in a better way. The most important moment in my shot cycle is to hold the focus on my core and the moment when it clicks to hold my tension in my whole body.”
A full outdoor season beckons, with the world field championships coming up in Cortina. She’s also not ruled out coaching. “I think yes, I have a lot of experience and I could help other archers with that, and I know how it feels if you shoot.” You get the feeling that Lisa may be on top of the game for a while to come yet.
Images: Dean Alberga