COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Sean McLaughlin wanted to be an Olympic archer for Team USA so badly that he started training as a resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, straight out of high school. His dream got shot down four years ago when he missed the first cut in the three-stage U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Archery.
As the first stage of the 2016 team trials wrapped up Monday at Texas A&M University’s intramural fields, McLaughlin found himself second overall in points and headed to the second stage in the spring.
“I shot very well this weekend and was so happy to be up in points,” McLaughlin said. “I hit the goals I wanted to hit and made every arrow count."
Meanwhile, there was women’s archer Lauren Clamon, who participated with a heavy heart at this first stage of the Olympic Trials. Her father passed away last month from a heart attack. Clamon finished fifth overall in women’s points, just one point behind five-time Olympian Khatuna Lorig.
The first stage of the trials took place Sunday and Monday with Zach Garrett and Mackenzie Brown as the male and female leaders heading into stage two, which will take place in April 2016.
Nearly 300 of the top archers in the country descended on College Station last week, and USA Archery whittled the teams down to the top 16 men and top 16 women in the Texas Shootout, which preceded the two-day Olympic Trials. Stage two of trials will trim the field down to the top eight men and top eight women, and stage three will finally determine the men and women who will represent Team USA at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The U.S. has already qualified a full three-person men’s team, but only has one women’s spot to date. The top three men after stage three will go to Rio, while the top three women will go to a world cup in June to attempt to qualify the maximum three spots, which they will fill.
Sunday and Monday’s event was a round-robin format where, like McLaughlin said, every arrow counted. Even if an archer lost his or her head-to-head match, their points added up and their three-arrow end average got calculated into the overall points standings.
Archers won’t start stage two with a clean slate. Points from stage one will be carried over to stage two. Coaches will quickly point out that every archer in the mix still has a chance to move up, much like Jacob Wukie in 2012. Wukie finished the first stage in 2012 as the 16th qualifier, but moved up to make the final three and joined Team USA in London, where the men earned team silver.
Some of the usual names surfaced on both men’s and women’s teams, but new faces are becoming regulars in the national tournaments. Archers like Garrett and McLaughlin are pushing for spots on the U.S. Olympic Team as they finished just ahead of 2012 Olympic team members Brady Ellison, Wukie and Jake Kaminski, who finished third through fifth in points, respectively.
Also in the running for the men are Vic Wunderle, a three-time Olympian and individual silver medalist at the 2000 Games, and Daniel McLaughlin, Sean’s twin brother. They currently sit in seventh and eighth.
Brown led the women’s team with 25.75 points and was followed by Ariel Gibilaro, LaNola Pritchard, Lorig and Clamon. Lorig is the only Olympian in the women’s field.
“I’m really impressed that the level of competition has increased,” said women’s head coach Guy Krueger. “Our scores have improved not just since 2012, but since the world championship trials last April."
Krueger said it’s getting “harder and harder to win now.”
“You want to see girls beat each other at their best, and that’s what’s happening now,” Krueger said. “It’s tough to see, but you’ll see good shooters miss the cut. You just have to compete with yourself.”
USA Archery men’s coach Kisik Lee said the trials have helped push the top American archers to be more competitive.
“The level of competition is higher than it’s ever been, and I’m happy to see more depth for the USA team,” Lee said. “We may have Olympians, but we have many new people who are competing at a high level.”
Lee credits much of the increased growth to the resident athlete program for archers in Chula Vista. Lee and Krueger work full-time at the facility, where archers eat, sleep and breathe archery just about 24 hours a day.
“If I’m not out practicing, then I’m engaged in the sport mentally,” said Ellison, a two-time Olympian, ranked among the best in the world.
Lee said there’s a possibility of getting an American on the individual medal podium in Rio, but there’s more of a possibility of getting another team medal, perhaps improving upon 2012’s team silver.
Scott McDonald is a Houston-based freelance writer who has 17 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.