London Spy

Archery favourite on God’s plan and ‘The Hunger Games’

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Brady Ellison shot an arrow through a doughnut.

There are other more relevant accomplishments in the 23-year-old Olympian's career: He's the No. 1-ranked archer in the world for 2011 and 2012, and won gold at both the Pan American Games and the World Archery Indoor Championships.

But on ESPN's "Sport Science" this summer, Brady Ellison shot an arrow through the hole of a large, puffy, glazed doughnut 70 meters away -- on his first shot for the cameras, no less.

Granted, shooting at pastry isn't a feat associated with Olympic gold. It's just something you do on national television when you're the scruffy, outspoken face of the surging archery movement in the US (thanks, "Hunger Games").

"There's a lot of hype and stuff right now surrounding me. You can be the face of this, or you could be the face of that. I feel very blessed and fortunate that people try to make me that," Ellison said in London on Tuesday, days before archery begins in the 2012 Summer Games.

It's easy to see how Ellison has become the face of his sport. He's got an outsized personality, to go along with talent that enables him to bull's-eye a target from one football end zone to the other. He's approachable, and the outdoors man next door: a hunter, fisher and hiker who's taken his bow on an African safari and hopes to one day take down an Argali sheep. ("I think there are less than 15 people in the world that have shot one with a bow," he said.) And he doesn't shy away from the role model thing.

"I just step on the field and try to let how I shoot, how I behave and how I act in my life represent myself and God," he said. "If people like that, they do; if they don't, they don't."

Ellison speaks openly about his faith because he doesn't believe he'd be here without it. Not just in the competitive sense — he believes God spared his life two years ago.

In 2010, Ellison was visiting a friend in Vermont named John, whom he considers "like a brother." Driving back to his house from a hunting trip, Ellison said his car was climbing over a hill on a road with a double-yellow line when disaster nearly struck.

"I saw the car's headlights. There was a car racing, in my lane," he said, recalling how he blacked out in the moment.

Ellison believes the collision would have killed him. But the speeding vehicles didn't crash.

"Looking back on that, I was already turning the wheel before I saw the car coming. The car pulled off into a ditch. I remember that car, through my blurred vision, missing me by inches," he said.

"I know God saved my life."

It was an epiphany that reordered Ellison's existence: He began living for God, and in turn had faith that his path had been divinely chosen. "I wouldn't say I was the most angelic of a person. I've quit drinkin'. Just tried to be a better person, healthier and live for Him."

"She's been someone in my faith that's really helped," he said. "She's amazing. It's a balance that I haven't had in a long time. She's one of the few people where I can come home and grumble about a score that's [still] top three in the world. She understands that and she can push me. She can say things that I'll get mad at from other people, but I'll say, 'You're right.'"

This affirmation of faith came during a four-year stretch between Summer Olympics in which Ellison became, arguably, the best re-curve archer in the world.

He made Team USA in the 2008 Beijing Games, emerging from the ranking round in both individual and team events. He lost in the second round to Canadian Jay Lyon, and saw the US men's team fall in the first round to Chinese Taipei.

"So in Beijing, I was the baby on the team. I didn't have the experience I needed, really. I shot good enough to win that match, but I just didn't trust myself. I was so involved with the excitement of it in Beijing. Coming into London is a lot more business-like," he said.

The last four years saw Ellison compete in as many international tournaments as he could, and find the necessary confidence to climb the world rankings. "Over the last two years, my faith has grown a lot. That was key. To let go of my fears about being No. 1," said the Glendale, Arizona native.

He enters London as the top-ranked archer, but may not be the favorite for gold. Im Dong-Hyun of South Korea — a seemingly miraculous shooter who is far-sighted but refuses to wear glasses — is his top competition, and their rivalry has been compared by Sports Illustrated to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

"I don't," said Ellison of the comparison. "Archery's a strange sport when it comes to that kind of thing. We don't get those heated rivalries, where you want to beat them into the ground."

Rather than the sizzle of feuds, archers have to settle for the kinetic thrill of sharp objects traveling 130 mph, piercing targets (and the occasional doughnut) with deadly force. Shooters believe their sport is participation friendly, increases mental sharpness and is, frankly, pretty cool.

Thanks to Katniss Everdeen, a new generation is discovering it.

The heroine of "The Hunger Games" used a bow as a weapon. (Olympian Khatuna Lorig of the US women's team trained Jennifer Lawrence for the role.) Ditto the heroine of Pixar's "Brave", and Hawkeye in "The Avengers." Since these films were released, the sport has seen participation jump 20 percent in the US, with archery ranges and gear stores suddenly flooded with new, interested archery fans.

Team USA's Jake Kaminski said he no longer has to make clunky comparisons to Robin Hood when he tells someone "I shoot archery."

Ellison said his sport's representation in movies has built more interest in it heading into the Summer Games. "I'll be curious to see if we stay popular after the Games," he said.

Some of that will be on Ellison, who has a shot (literally) at the US's first gold medal in the event since Justin Huish in 1996.

"I really want to be an ambassador for the sport," he said.

"Archery isn't a sport where you go out there and shoot people. We don't go out there and say, 'I'm a great archer so I want to kill animals,'" he said. "Archery is a sport that everyone and anyone can do."

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