Each month, the Team USA Awards presented by Dow celebrates outstanding achievements of U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes. LaNola Shepherd and the U.S. Women's Recurve Archery Team won Team of the Month for May 2017, during which they won silver at the Archery World Cup for their first world cup team medal in nearly two years. In Shepherd's Diamond Club feature, presented by Dow, she gives an inside look at the highs and lows of the last several years, from topping the podium to missing the Olympic team and everything in between.
The summer of 2015 was a great one for archer LaNola Shepherd (née Pritchard).
|LaNola Shepherd shoots in the women's recurve team competition at Archery World Cup Stage 1 on May 21, 2017 in Shanghai.|
In July, she and teammates Khatuna Lorig and Ariel Gibilaro won bronze at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games. One month later, she, Lorig and Mackenzie Brown won the first-ever team gold medal by U.S. women at the Archery World Cup.
“At the time when we won, we didn’t realize the significance that it was the first time the U.S. women had won gold,” Shepherd said. “While we were shooting the match we were just having fun and making sure we put our best shots down there, but it wasn’t until after the fact that we were told we just pulled a first. That made it that much cooler.”
Cooler and, of course, more significant. That significance has only grown in hindsight; after so much success in such a short time, it would be almost two years before Shepherd would step on a podium again.
With that much optimism entering the Olympic season, it was a surprise that the U.S. women failed to qualify a team for the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
“I think it was a lot of the stress of last year,” Shepherd said.
U.S. women’s archers didn’t qualify the maximum three quota spots at the 2015 World Archery Championships, which meant that they had to wait nearly a year for their final opportunity to qualify a three-person Olympic team.
“We didn’t have our full team spots, so there was a lot of extra stress put on our team competitions because we wanted to secure those spots,” Shepherd said. “It was a lot of extra pressure put on us, so we had a hard time performing.”
U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Archery concluded in May 2016, before the world cup that acted as the last-chance team qualifier. There was one guaranteed individual women’s quota spot, while the top three would make up the Olympic team, should they qualify.
Brown finished first, guaranteeing herself a trip to Rio. Hye Youn Park and Lorig finished second and third to round out the potential team.
Shepherd was fourth.
Had the team qualified for Rio, she would’ve been designated as the alternate. But instead, she watched from afar as her teammates again failed to qualify.
“It was kind of like a double heartbreak,” Shepherd said. “It was the heartbreak when personally I didn’t make the team, and then watching all three of them. Because the three shooters that did make the team, they were all very strong competitors, so I was very excited to watch them. We were all sure that those three are strong so they should be able to get that spot. When they lost, I felt what they were feeling at that moment.”
|(L-R) LaNola Shepherd, Khatuna Lorig and Mackenzie Brown compete in the women's recurve team competition at Archery World Cup Stage 1 on May 21, 2017 in Shanghai.|
Shepherd watched the Olympic archery competitions from home, got married and entered the 2017 alongside her teammates refreshed and ready to go. With the next Olympics far on the horizon in 2020, the pressure cooker of the prior season was no longer a factor.
“We finished 2016; that stressful year is over and done with,” Shepherd said. “We’ve all taken a big breather and now it’s, ‘alright, let’s get back up there.’ We didn’t really say it to each other, but there was that unspoken agreement of ‘let’s get our stuff back together. Let’s do this.’”
Entering the world cup in Shanghai, the first of the 2017 season, Shepherd, Lorig and Brown were seeded 11th in the 14-team field. In their first matchup, against sixth-seeded India, they cruised to a 6-2 victory. They had an even easier time against No. 3 Japan, winning 6-0.
But for Shepherd, that match was fraught with difficulty as she was nearly derailed by a mental breakdown.
She had been struggling with her mental game recently, finding herself in a panic on the line for no tangible reason. But after dealing with this issue in the past, she was able to clear her head after her teammates kept them in the match.
“We had about five minutes to our next match, so I just walked back, sat down in a chair, closed my eyes, cleared my head, and just did… I’m sure you’ve heard of it, do a million perfect shots in your head before each arrow,” Shepherd said. “I didn’t have the time for a million shots, but I just calmed my head and went through my shot process mentally to reaffirm in my mind what a good shot is, what it feels like. Just to clear everything out and put myself in a new and better spot for the semifinal match.”
She found that better spot in time for the semifinal, an easy 6-0 win over No. 10 Malaysia to guarantee the team its first world cup medal since 2015.
Though they would go on to fall to eighth-seeded Russia, 6-2, in the gold-medal match, Shepherd says she and her teammates are still thrilled with getting back to the podium. While they did so in underdog fashion, the sky is the limit.
“We always have this mindset during our matches that anything can happen,” Shepherd said. “There’s been many times that we’ve watched a 64-seed take out a No. 1. The idea is that anyone can win, anyone can have a good shot, anyone can have a bad shot. So we determined, ‘let’s go out there, let’s put our best shots down range. Where they land, they land, and who wins is who wins.’ So that’s what we did. We made sure that we put our best shots out there and didn’t really care about who we were shooting against or the fact that they were higher seeded. We just knew that if we put our best arrows down there, we can beat anyone.”