At the conclusion of another outdoor season, John Stanley looks back at the big scores, surprises, and successes
The busy 2017 international outdoor circuit saw familiar lineups but some surprising results. The Hyundai World Cup season, featuring new stages in the USA and Germany, acted as a slow-burn buildup towards ‘worlds season’, with the para and youth world championships capped by the senior World Championships in Mexico City. 2018 saw the 49th edition of the biannual event, which dates back to 1931. This year also saw the announcement of a podium for the mixed team event at the Tokyo Olympics, giving the event a new dynamic on the international circuit.
The season began in May, with the traditional opener in Shanghai. The biggest shock was seeing the usually-mighty Korean recurve teams falter in matchplay; the women’s team didn’t even make it past the quarter finals, the men’s team were humbled by a rock-solid Kazakhstan, and world number one Kim Woojin somehow contrived to lose three finals in a row. In the compounds, Stephan Hansen won his first individual stage and Sara Lopez took her sixth on the trot – setting up a dramatic year for both. But the biggest story of the meet was Steve Wijler. The 20-year-old Dutch rookie competed in his first ever senior international and took men’s recurve gold, apparently nerveless on the biggest stages.
With the Koreans absent from the Antalya leg in May, it was Chinese Taipei’s turn to shine. The nation has poured enormous resources into archery in the last 10 years, and their recurve and compound teams are starting to show the sort of strength in depth that can finally challenge for the very top spots. The jewel in their crown is the women’s recurve team, who cruised to gold in Turkey, a performance they would repeat at the next stage in the USA.
The standout match in Antalya was the men’s individual recurve final, which saw Rio Olympic medallists Brady Ellison and JC Valladont battle in a superb, tight match which saw the Frenchman take his second individual World Cup gold. Ksenia Perova, after 10 years on the circuit and dozens of major team trophies, finally took an individual title, and Denmark’s compounders went on a rout, almost taking a clean sweep of gold medals on the beach.
The action moved on to the Easton Center outside Salt Lake City, the first outing of a long awaited three-year engagement in the USA, although the hoped-for crowds were absent this year. In the ferocious desert heat the Olympic champion Chang Hyejin topped everyone over the ranking round, including all the men. Finishing on 683 – but for a gust or two of wind she would have broken the world record – and she went on to win the inaugural Salt Lake title.
The quadrennial World Games, this year held in the former World Cup venue of Wroclaw in Poland features sports not usually on the Olympic programme, and saw recurve and barebow field archery and compound target competitions. In this year’s outing, Brady Ellison, the reigning world champion at field archery, was pipped to the men’s title by Amedeo Tonelli of Italy.
After a few weeks’ break, the last of the World Cup stages was back in Europe in Berlin, with qualification held outside the iconic Olympiastadion. The Korean recurve teams returned and stamped their authority over proceedings, winning every final they contested. On the compound side, the increasingly tight battles between the handful of archers at the very top of the sport continued, with Mike Schloesser getting the better of Stephan Hansen in the latter’s third consecutive final, and Sarah Sonnichsen’s win pushing her into the world number one position over Sara Lopez, who did not contest the stage. Women’s recurve gold went to Korea’s Kang Chae Young, who took that form straight to the Universiade in Taipei and won the title there too, beating Tan Ya Ting on home turf to a stunned, silent arena.
All the world’s elite were present at a spectacular World Cup final in Rome at the Stadio Dei Marmi, played out in front of heaving crowds and in a carnival atmosphere – a good reminder of the sheer numbers of fans archery can gather to see the very biggest names. Kim Woojin, Ki Bo Bae, Braden Gellenthien and Sara Lopez were crowned circuit champions, with Ki kind enough to give World Archery the scoop on the announcement of her engagement.
All the year’s work had been building towards the biannual series of World Championships, the highlight of many archer’s careers outside the Olympic Games. The para championships in Beijing saw Zahra Nemati cement her status as the greatest para-archer of her generation, reclaiming the title she won in 2013 to go with her gold medal in Rio last year. There were strong performances from Italy, China and Great Britain too, in the festival atmosphere that characterises the para side of the sport. The following World Youth Championships in Argentina were nearly blown away by a storm, in an event described by many as the most difficult meet of the year.
The stage was finally set for Mexico City, with the business end held in the Zocalo, the immense public square that dates back to Aztec times. Sara Lopez, who had spent most of the last two years as unquestionably the best female compound archer in the world, saw her form suddenly desert her, qualifying in a lowly 12th place and not making it past the first two rounds. (She would later take gold with the Colombian team). Sarah Sonnichsen could not get past the dangerous Korean Song Yun Soo in the semifinal, and Song showed nerves of steel to beat the increasingly high-performing but erratic Yesim Bostan of Turkey for the women’s gold.
Stephan Hansen had the enviable record of contesting a final in every major competition he entered this year, and bulldozed through the field to set up a defence of the title he won in Copenhagen two years ago. He faced France’s Sebastian Peineau, the reigning world indoor champion but an archer who hadn’t taken an outdoor individual medal since 2015. Hansen had dominated the season and the competition, but had still struggled with release aids and controlling target panic. In the final, he seemed rattled as Peineau led, but pulled it back to force a shoot-off, which the Frenchman edged out to win, a war of nerves as much as archery.
Kim Woojin was the favourite on the recurve men’s side going in, the most consistent archer all season. But he ran into Chinese Taipei’s best male archer, Wei Chun Heng, who destroyed his hopes of a third world title with three 30s on his way to the final, where he met the veteran Korean Im Dong Hyun. Wei raced out to a 4-0 lead, but couldn’t sustain the momentum, and ended up losing a shoot-off. Im claimed his second world title, 10 years after his first. (Interestingly, Wei and Deepika Kumari were up there in all measurable statistics, average arrows and win percentages, throughout the 2017 season – though only the former managed to put something good enough together on the day to climb up onto the podium.)
The women’s final between Chang Hyejin and Ksenia Perova was perhaps the most interesting of all. Chang had had what was perhaps her best season ever on the back of her Olympic title, showing impressive quality at every turn. But the Russian, while not as elegant or precise as her peers, seemed to have a bulletproof psychological edge that had powered her to several finals: whenever she approached the line, all self-doubt was gone. In Mexico, she seemed to find an extra gear when she needed it, and Chang, who hadn’t looked comfortable from the moment she walked out onto the platform, seemed to be missing her usual aggressive snap. Perova took it; a victory for dogged, relentless consistency.
All in all, it wasn’t a year for big changes; there weren’t too many new arrivals apart from Steve Wijler, who grabbed individual bronze in Mexico to cap the standout archery performance of the year. Next year, several major nations will be laser-focused on the Asian Games in Jakarta – for East Asian teams, it’s sometimes described as the ‘second Olympics’.
Other highlights in 2018 will include the World Field Championships in Italy, the Youth Olympic Games in Argentina, and the European Championships in Legnica, Poland. We may also see some top archers taking some time out, and new blood coming in to the established international sides. Hopefully it’s shaping up to be something very special indeed.
My end-of-year awards*
> BEST ARCHER
Kim Woojin. In a genuinely astonishing display of consistency, he finished second, second, first and first at the three circuit stages and World Cup final he contested in 2017. At the final in Rome, he was so relaxed he looked like he was practicing. Untouchable at his best.
> BIGGEST SURPRISE
Steve Wijler. No question. Winning the first World Cup stage at his first international fixture was extraordinary enough, but he followed it with consistent finishes, a team silver medal, a last four finish in Rome and individual bronze at the World Championships. Archer of the year, and then some. Runner-up: Ksenia Perova.
> BEST MATCH
Stephan Hansen versus Sebastian Peineau, World Championship final, Mexico City. Watching two men perform at their highest ability and trying not to blink. A test of psychology as much as archery.
Runner-up: the top seed recurve battle of Ellison v Valladont in Antalya.