Will Brady Ellison or Sara Lopez win their sixth World Cup crown in 2021?

Sara Lopez and Brady Ellison on the podium at the Hyundai Archery World Cup Final in 2019.

This story begins in 2018, at the Hyundai Archery World Cup Final in Samsun.

Colombia’s Sara Lopez arrived in Turkey as the defending champion, having won compound women’s gold the year prior in Rome and at three of the past four editions of the season-ending event.

She beat Linda Ochoa-Anderson in the final that year to make it four of five and draw level with the USA's Brady Ellison on the number of career titles on the international circuit. One day later in Samsun, Ellison finished third, missing his chance to reacquire a lead in the record books.

The results set up a wonderful storyline leading into the 2019 season: Which of the two would be able to pull ahead, making history by winning a fifth title?

“I think there is a strong possibility that we could both get five this year,” Ellison said at the first stage that year in Medellin. “And then it’s going to be a race to see who gets the sixth one.”

Whatever you say, Brady.

Not only would Ellison and Lopez both have to qualify for the event – either winning a stage or accruing enough points to make it with an invitational from their positions in the ranking – but they would then have to both win all three matches, in which anything could happen, at the Final in Moscow.

Following through on that prediction was the furthest thing from guaranteed.

Of course, both Ellison and Lopez won individual golds at that first stage, booking themselves in early for the Moscow 2019 Hyundai Archery World Cup Final.

By the time the season finalé in September arrived, the former was the reigning World Archery Champion and world number one, while the latter had comfortably taken gold in the first compound event at the Pan American Games.

In other words, they were as on top of their games as ever.

In Moscow, Lopez demolished home favourite – and world champion – Natalia Avdeeva, shooting a 149 and winning the compound women’s final by 10 points to take her fifth circuit title.

And then again, one day later, Ellison was never really challenged through three matches as he defeated European Games Champion Mauro Nespoli of Italy, 6-2, in the recurve men’s gold medal match for his fifth trophy.

The pandemic then put their pursuit of additional medals on hold. But here we are, in April 2021, just weeks away from the start of the Hyundai Archery World Cup’s 15th season.

Just as Ellison predicted two years ago, both he and Lopez have five circuit titles – and now it’s a race to see which one, if either, can collect their sixth.

“I’m really excited to come back," said Lopez, who was the runner-up at the Pan American Championships in March. "Even though I already had a competition, the World Cups are very different, and the level is a lot higher.” 

Both she and Ellison will compete at the first Hyundai Archery World Cup stage of the year in Guatemala City in April.

“I’m not nervous about competing again,” she continued. “I’m working really hard on my technique and getting my high scores back, and I’m getting there. I just have to be patient.”

A former medical student, Lopez was unfazed by the COVID-19 regulations in place last month in Monterrey.

The extra spotlight that comes with greater distancing on the line, as well as the single targets, saw her deliver a perfect 150-point match with 10 Xs during eliminations. She hasn’t shot many scores like that since her ultra-dominant seasons of 2015 to 2017.

“I’m pretty sure we’ll see some insane scores in all categories, especially from the recurve archers, because we’ve got the Olympic Games coming later this year, but also the compounds,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of time to work on our techniques and take some rest. I personally found that I really needed to take some time for myself to rest and spend time with my family, and to work on my mental health as well.”

Ellison’s victory in Moscow came during his 10th consecutive appearance at the Hyundai Archery World Cup Final.

The longevity alone is remarkable. But the last time we saw Ellison in action, he had just completed one of the greatest – if not the greatest – seasons by any archer in history. As well as the circuit success, he won the worlds and set the ranking round world record at 702 out of a possible 720 points.

“I think the year off will change a lot, maybe with people retiring or new faces coming back,” he said.

A lot has changed for him, too. The 32-year-old is a new father, for a start. But it would appear that his acceptance of change is an observation of others – not what he sees in himself. Ellison is very much ready to get back out on the line.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am that the World Cups are coming back, especially since there’s more money on them now,” said Ellison, who is always outspoken about the need for continued professionalisation in the sport.

There is a 20% prize fund hike across the board in 2021. 

“A sixth title would be awesome,” he continued. “But, honestly, the Olympic gold is the first step. Then defending the world champs. Then winning the sixth title.”

Could you imagine that? If Ellison's 2019 season was one of the best in archery history, what would this upcoming hypothetical year be?

Unreal, that’s what.

Ellison hides nothing in his words.

The competitive drive that has fuelled his success over the past decade is alive and well as we enter the postponed first full competition year of the 2020s.

Lopez, meanwhile, reads less intensely.

“I‘ve understood that winning is not important. At the beginning of my career, I let those things get to my head. If I didn’t win a certain tournament, it would hit me really hard,” she said. “My life has come to a place where I am extremely happy. I enjoy archery more than ever. Winning a sixth title would be amazing, but if it doesn’t happen, I’m okay.”

Lopez's healthy outlook on life is commendable.

But when the whistle blows in Guatemala City for the first stage of this year’s Hyundai Archery World Cup, will there be a different archer on the line than the one we saw celebrate in Russia just 18 months ago? 

Above all of the natural talent, clean technique and brilliant shot execution, it’s her killer instinct – her fearlessness, as Ellison put it at the start of 2019 – that has made Lopez so successful over the past six years.

She will need that same sense of fearlessness as she begins her pursuit of a sixth title. And her only opponent already has his foot hovering above the accelerator.

“I’m not nervous at all,” Ellison said. “I am so ready to get this going again.”