Van Den Berg: “The day on which I realised I just love winning”

Sjef’s goals, like many top recurve archers shooting now, circle around the Olympic Games in Rio in the summer of 2016.

His ongoing Olympic campaign got off to a good start when, at the Aquece Rio Olympic Test Event in September, he collected silver. And that came just a few months after the young Netherlander finished second at the first European Games in Baku. The two podiums capped a season that saw Sjef reach the top 10 at the Copenhagen 2015 World Archery Championships, in both individual and team competitions.

That team result also secured the Netherlands a full three-man team quota to Rio.

In his first competition in the Olympic venue, the Sambodrome, Sjef qualified 15th. He won his first two matches and, in the third, came up against the second seed, Canada’s Crispin Duenas. The Dutch archer trailed 4-0 after two sets but stole the win, 6-4.

He then beat Mauro Nespoli , 6-0, in the quarterfinals and Jayanta Talukdar  6-4 in a full five-set semi.

The final, against World Archery Champion Kim Woojin , proved a tight affair. Both archers started with 29, then Woojin took the lead with another 29 – Sjef scoring 27. The two archers drew in the third and fourth sets, with 29 and 30 each to bring the set score to 5-3.

With a one-point advantage (29-28), the Korean archer won the match and collected gold, 7-3. Sjef had silver.

Ranked number nine in the world since the event, Sjef says he knew Kim Woojin was one of the best, if not the best, archers in the world.

“[The Korean archer] proved that by not only shooting a massive amount of tens, but also doing it in such a confident and relaxed way,” recalls Sjef, saying he expected a tough match before heading into the arena.

“My respect towards Kim grew and I look back at a final in which I had loads of fun and, I think, I gained a little confidence boost.”

That boost started earlier in the brackets, Sjef says, when he took down Nespoli in straight sets after the Italian gave him some openings early on. But it was the critical third round clash with Duenas that propelled the Dutch archer to the podium.

“He started off really strong and I felt that all I could do was make good shots and hope for the best,” he says. Crispin started with 59 out of a possible 60 points through the first two sets to jump to a 4-0 lead. Sjef recalls making good shots, which just kept missing the centre.

“After that I found my rhythm and started shooting 10s again. Just in time! I was able to take the match with 6-4 and from that point I felt like everything was possible,” the 20-year old explains. Sjef shot three 29-point series to complete his comeback and eliminate the Canadian.

“It was a reminder that even though situations don’t always seem bright, the win is still within reach.”

Sjef van den Berg won a second medal – bronze – at the Rio test event in the team competition, with Rick van der Ven and Jan van Tongeren.

The podiums weren’t Sjef’s first big results of the year. At the first European Games in Baku, at the start of the summer in 2015, Sjef had made the final – and only come second to the surprise winning Spanish athlete, Miguel Alvarino Garcia .

“Being part of the first European Games was a privilege, to say the least,” says Sjef. “I’ll never forget a single one of those matches. But what I’ll remember best about Baku is the fun we had as team. There was a great atmosphere and we all had a blast.”

Sjef says he felt confident walking into the gold medal match but, when he walked into the arena, like his focus had flown out of the door.

“My pressure wasn't right and the shots were a little weak so I shot a lot of arrows on the right hand side of the target. Miguel kept shooting well and hitting the ten when he needed it most. He beat me in a convincing fashion.”

The silver marked the pinnacle of Sjef’s career to date, and with Rick van der Ven and Mitch Dielemans, he collected the recurve men’s team bronze medal in Baku, too. Something more than the silverware stood out to the young Dutchman, though.

“I’ve been watching archery matches on the internet ever since I was a kid and always saw the professionals shoot 30s like it meant nothing,” he says. “The first time I felt like that myself on an international circuit was in Baku, in my first match.”

Having had success in both team and individual competition, Sjef sees enjoyment in both different aspects of international archery events.

“The individual competition gives me a thrill because all depends on me. When I shoot a bad arrow there's no-one to blame but me, but when I do well, it's all me, too!”

“That said, team competitions are also great! Especially since they use set system for teams now, as well. It really makes the match exciting and fun. I like the fact that even if you might shoot less than you're used to, your teammates are there to pick you back up and save you,” he explains.

Now a regular on the Dutch squad, Sjef’s come a long way since his international debut in 2010, in Reggio Calabria, Italy.

Impressed by the experience of his first time wearing the Netherlands team uniform, Sjef remembers wanting to repeat the feeling of competing at a world-class level – both for the enjoyment of the tournament and the diversity inherent in the cultural impact, and differences, at events.

“It’s great to talk with people and learn how they experience different countries,” he says. “But national competitions are still fun, too.”

It’s the comfort that comes with being able to speak your own language, bring all your own equipment and eat your own food that makes competing domestically enjoyable for the now-experienced international archer.

“I like archery as a whole,” says Sjef adamantly. “It doesn’t matter that much where I get to shoot, as long as I get to shoot.”

Sjef says shoot, but it’s easy to tell he just as much means win.

It was back in 2009 when, according to Sjef, he first felt the spirit of a real victory, with a win at a small indoor tournament called the ‘Junior Face2Face’. Even though the competition was small, Sjef says, it felt like a big win.

“After the competition I was spoken to by some shop owners, who asked if they could offer me a contract to represent them at tournaments. Besides that being the day on which I realised I just love winning, it was the first step towards shooting professionally,” says Sjef.

Now ranked in the top 10 recurve men in the world at the age of 20, Sjef began shooting with his own bow 13 years ago – at the age of seven – which was three years after his father had first taken him and his brother to an archery club together.

He’s come a long way from the kid with the toy bow in the back garden. Sjef’s now a young man with big achievements under his belt, and even higher aspirations.

“My personal goals are not only to reach the Olympics, but also to shoot well there,” states Sjef.

Appreciating that placing high at a Games also depends on the performance of his opponents, Sjef approach towards Rio 2016 is one of calm confidence.

“As long as I shoot well, I’ll be fine.”