Commentary

The 'best archer who ever lived'?

Updated: May 23, 2012, 12:07 PM ET
By Jim Caple

CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- The three-bedroom apartment Brady Ellison shares with two fellow archers near the U.S. Olympic training center has three floors, with one bedroom off the garage, a kitchen and living area on the middle level and two bedrooms on the top. It isn't fancy. There are two decorative touches, however, that make Ellison stand out from most every other Olympian.

A deer head and a Corsican (long-horned) sheep head mounted on his bedroom wall.

The trophies are just two of the many animals Ellison has hunted, either with a rifle or his preferred weapon, the bow and arrow. "It's much harder with a bow because you have to get so much closer," he said. "With a gun, you can shoot stuff from a thousand yards. I've killed animals at 92 or 93 yards with a bow, but most people aren't going to do it from more than 40 or 50 yards."

PETA members, start your engines.

"It's something humans have done forever, so there's that whole side of it. But it's also fun. It's exciting. You get to be outside," Ellison said of hunting's allure. "You have to be smarter than the animals, which sounds a lot easier than it is because they smell and hear so much better than we do. You're trying to outsmart them and getting close is just fun. The adrenaline rush I get is better than shooting in tournaments. And the animals taste better."

This summer, though, Ellison, 23, is hunting something much more elusive and precious than a deer, wild boar or javelina: an Olympic gold medal. He has been so committed to this goal, and archery in general, that he first moved to the Olympic training center at age 16, foregoing his last two years of high school to surround himself with Olympians and better develop his skills.

In other words, Ellison would have been a very smart first-round pick in your "Hunger Games" fantasy league. He is now the No. 1 ranked archer in the world.

"I came here because I wanted to be the best in the world," he said. "I wanted to be known as the best archer who ever lived. ... I feel like a bow fits me. I honestly feel God put me on this earth to shoot a bow."

Brady EllisonMike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesAmerican Brady Ellison is currently the No. 1 ranked archer in the world.

'I'm just a country boy'

Ellison occasionally wears a cowboy hat over his brown curly hair, along with a silvery belt buckle so large it could be mistaken for the Wimbledon championship tray. At the recent Olympic media summit, his marvelously trim fellow athletes prominently wore Ralph Lauren (and in the case of gymnast Nastia Liukin, five-inch black heels), but the husky Ellison wore a weathered baseball cap with a hook on the curved bill. Until recently, he also chewed tobacco. "I'm just a country boy," he said.

The Ellison family has been in Arizona since the 1880s. His grandfather ran a cattle ranch and Brady said he would be working cattle as well were it not for archery.

The sport has been central in Ellison's life since he was in diapers and his father, Alfred Ellison, gave him a toy bow and arrow. Brady remembers receiving his first real bow for Christmas when he was 6 or 7 years old. His mother, Julie Nichols, said there were no "You'll shoot your eye out!" worries in the family because Brady was always surrounded by people who stressed gun and bow safety. Plus, with 20/10 vision, Brady enjoyed somewhat better aim than Ralphie did in "A Christmas Story."

"He's loved archery his entire life," Alfred said. "It's been his passion forever."

I came here because I wanted to be the best in the world. I wanted to be known as the best archer who ever lived. ... I feel like a bow fits me. I honestly feel God put me on this earth to shoot a bow.

-- Brady Ellison on his decision to move to the Olympic training center in Chula Vista at a young age

Although Alfred and Julie divorced when Ellison was 2, he and his father bonded during frequent hunting trips in their native Arizona that began before Brady could even speak. Alfred fondly recalls a day in a duck blind when he was aiming at some ducks and Brady startled him from behind by shouting, "Bang! Bang! Bang!" He turned around to see Brady pointing his finger to the sky as if firing a gun. "I shoot, too!" he yelled.

As a child, Ellison suffered with Perthes disease, a condition that affects the hip and required him to wear leg braces when he was in kindergarten. It did not slow him down -- he still ran and played sports and even broke the braces several times, Forrest Gump-like. Afterward, his passion for hunting led to archery tournaments, including some informal competitions against local archers in the family's one-acre backyard in Glendale.

"Everybody would put in $20," Nichols said, "and Brady figured out, 'There are 10 people back here shooting and we're all putting in $20. I can make some money off this just messing 'round with the adults in the backyard.' Half the time he won the money and there was all sorts of trash talk and that's how he grew up in his teenage years."

Ellison's national goals grew out of a 2003 tournament in Colorado where he noticed a number of kids wearing USA shirts. "He asked me, 'Why do they have USA on the back of their shirts?'" Nichols recalled. "I had no idea but I asked around and found out. So I told him, 'These are kids who have finished in the top of the U.S. or made the world team. And when you do that, you get a shirt that says USA with your name on the back.' And he said, 'I think I want one of those.'"

Within a year, Ellison was on the U.S. junior world team (his mother eventually married one of his coaches, Mel Nichols). By 16, he faced an important decision.

He was switching from a compound bow to the less precise recurve bow that is used in Olympic competition. Ellison could continue his development at his home in Arizona or he could move to the Olympic training center and work full time with U.S. coach Kisik Lee as a resident athlete. Even though the latter meant missing his final two years of high school -- proms, homecoming dances, those fun lunch-room cliques -- he decided living at the training center was the way to become the best archer possible.

"It just felt right to be out here shooting my bow all day long," he said. "This was going to be my dream, this was going to be my job, this is what I was going to do the rest of my life."

"It was scary, an unsure thing," Alfred said. "School is always a huge deal to me, even if it's just high school. He had to finish high school there, that was the deal, and he had great people looking over him. You knew the talent was there and just didn't want to let it go to waste."

Ellison took high school courses online, but combined with his training, the process took so long he wound up getting his GED instead. "It was kind of hard because I put archery first and school second," he said. "Which I'll tell you right now was probably one of the worst decisions I made."

On the other hand, he became an Olympian while his old classmates were probably still driving around with graduation tassels dangling from their rear-view mirrors.

"It made me grow up," he said. "I went out there at 16 thinking like any other 16-year-old kid, 'I can do this and do that.' And then you go into an environment where you have all these people who have been training forever. I had all these guys who had been to the Olympics and won medals. And as soon as you step into that atmosphere, you know you can't do what you do anymore. You don't want to be the immature, little 16-year-old kid who messes with everyone. You look up and say, 'This is what I'm supposed to do, this is how I'm supposed to act.'"

Athletics at the training center are a little different than, say, the JV basketball team. For one thing, there are no cheerleaders decorating your locker on Friday mornings.

[+] EnlargeBrady Ellison
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty ImagesBrady Ellison deliberately tattooed the Olympic rings on his forearm so it would show up in photos.

"You go from being in a high school scene with a bunch of high school kids to being in a place with a bunch of elite athletes who are 10 years older than me at least. It's an immediate change," he said. "And it was like, all right, I made the decision right then and there, that it's time to grow up. If I want to do this, if I want to be good, if this is what I want to do with my life, then I have do what these guys are doing and I have to start acting like they are. And then instantly you mature."

Ellison joked that his body doesn't look as if he does cardio work, but he does. He devotes eight hours a day to his sport, but considers his focus and mental discipline to be his greatest strengths. He trains with the Mental Management System developed by Lanny Bassham, a 1976 Olympic gold medalist shooter.

"Mentally, I think I'm the strongest person on the field," he said. "I'd put money on that statement. I do a lot of mental work. I do more mental work than physical work."

Although Ellison first went to Chula Vista with the goal of making the 2012 Olympic team, he was so good he made the 2008 squad at age 19. A labral tear in his hip that stemmed from the Perthes disease required surgery in 2008, but Ellison put it off until after the Olympics. He advanced to the final bracket in Beijing, but did not medal in either the individual or team competition.

Ellison said the hip condition did not affect his shooting during the Games and it certainly has not hurt him since because he has dominated the sport. He's been ranked No. 1 in the world the past two years and won 35 of the 37 world events he entered last year.

He is not who you would want standing before you with an arrow if you were a deer. Nor do you necessarily want him standing between you and a gold medal if you're a competitor.

"He's raised the bar a lot, and other countries and other people here in the U.S. -- myself included -- know we have to shoot better in order to stay competitive," said five-time Olympian Butch Johnson. "He's a very humble person, and has a very good attitude and work ethic. If he keeps those qualities, and continues to love the sport, he could be even better."

'Put our sport on the map'

Thanks to "The Hunger Games," in which the hero, Katniss Everdeen, is a skilled archer, the sport's popularity is at an all-time high. Although that's a relative term in this country.

"It's been huge for archery," Ellison said. "I know archery shops across the U.S. are sold out in everything. A lot of my friends who run archery shops say they have to turn people away. It has been huge for us in just the exposure of people wanting to try it. I just hope and pray those people won't just try it and leave. Hopefully we'll get a little percentage of those people shooting competitions with us."

Ellison would like to further increase archery's popularity, saying he would welcome becoming a breakout star at the Olympics. "I would like to be the person who can put our sport on the map."

He may be just a country boy, but he is also very aware of his public visibility. When he got the usual Olympic rings tattoo so many Olympians traditionally do, he had them inked onto his forearm so they are prominently displayed for photographers when he draws his bow. He recently gave up chewing tobacco because he doesn't want to be a bad example for children who might see him on TV. He also regularly donates a share of his winnings to cancer research and used a pink bow on at least one occasion.

"Brady's a great person -- kind, humble, very mature for his age," said Johnson, who is 56. "He's a leader that a lot of other archers, many of whom are his age or older, look up to. He loves his fiancée and is good to the people around him. He always has time for fans, and the success he's had hasn't changed those core values. ... The excitement around him hasn't gone to his head, and he's very strict with himself about being true to who he is and staying humble."

Of course, it would help archery's popularity if competition included shooting an apple off the top of someone's head, possibly a Kardashian.

"Skill-wise, it's a big target and I know I would make it," Ellison said of the William Tell stunt. "I would never do it because too many things could go wrong. Equipment-wise, a limb can break, a rest can break, an arrow can break -- that's just not a chance I would take. If I knew 100 percent that nothing would go wrong with my equipment, I would be comfortable doing it."

Ellison allows archery would be more exciting if the targets exploded after a bull's-eye, "But is it what our sport needs? I don't think so."

If Michael Phelps hasn't been able to get Americans excited about swimming outside of the Olympics, it's even less likely we will see "Monday Night Archery." But while the Olympics may lack the violent drama of "The Hunger Games," perhaps Ellison's skill, folksy charm and drive to be the best archer who ever lived can at least draw Americans' attention to the sport for a couple days this summer. If so, that could be his most impressive victory of all.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com