Britain’s new pathway towards the Paris 2024 Olympic Games
The 2022 European Championships get underway this week in Munich, Germany with archers from 40 countries present in the Bavarian capital.
Every team will be looking to win gold in Germany in what would be part of a long road, a process, that has been many years in the making.
Great Britain is taking a team of 12 archers to Germany. It’s a squad that features two winners of the Hyundai Archery World Cup season opener in Bryony Pitman and Ella Gibson, as well as 2016 Paralympic Champion Jess Stretton and the reigning Indoor Archery World Series Champion, Penny Healey.
Archery GB Performance Director Tom Duggan, coming up to his second year in the role, is responsible for steering his country down that path that aligns the Olympic, Paralympic and national talent development programmes to deliver results for the organisation, which made some fundamental changes earlier this year.
“In the last [Olympic] cycle, the Tokyo cycle, my role was as head of Paralympic performance so I just focused on the para programme and then [others] were running the Olympic programme,” explains Duggan. “Now, we’ve just got one performance director overseeing both programmes and that’s my role.”
“We went through a coaching review after Tokyo. I was on the Paralympic side and we’ve had a successful Games, winning two medals, but on the Olympic side we didn’t produce the results we were hoping to, that we were capable of.”
Britain was, arguably, one of the surprises of the last Olympic qualification process, booking a full six-athlete quota at the first opportunity. But when the Games came around, only one British archer made it past the second round – and the best result came with the men’s team, which was eliminated in the quarterfinals.
“The changes have been brought about in an attempt to find more alignment between the Olympic and Paralympic programmes and find the best things in both and be able to transfer them across,” says Duggan.
Clear evidence of that alignment between Olympic and Paralympic programmes will be highlighted very clearly next week in Munich with the appearance of para compounder Stretton, who is currently ranked world number two in the compound women’s open category and 142 in the able-bodied world rankings.
“Jess, who's one of our top para athletes, qualified for the able-bodied European team so she’ll be going to Munich,” says Duggan.
The pair shot for bronze in the finals arena in the Olympic capital.
“We want to create opportunities for meaningful arrows. We know that for some of the para athletes that will mean able-bodied stuff, but also, training opportunities for the able-bodied guys with the para athletes because they're training full time,” he explains.
“We’re all one organisation, Archery GB oversees both Paralympic and Olympic [athletes] and that's not always the case in other countries where you have separate, organisations,” he adds. “The whole thing about this para cycle is the alignment of the programmes and learning the lessons of each one: taking the best bits and creating a culture and an environment and a programme that is going to bring the success in Paris.”
Even with the alignment between Paralympic and Olympic athletes within Archery GB, Duggan – and the organisation itself – faces challenges among the disciplines with the able-bodied compounders not receiving the government funding that the Olympic recurvers and Paralympic athletes receive.
Despite this gap in financial support, which is not unique to Britain, Duggan, and everyone connected with Archery GB, try to plug the holes. Although this is further complicated by creating a team ethic in a sport which can be practised in solitude.
“It’s one of the challenges of the nature of the sport. You can train without actually needing an opponent, it’s different if you're a tennis player, for example,” explains Duggan, before moving on to the gulf in financial support between bows. “The difference between compound and recurve is a challenge. The recurve programme has the opportunity to be centralised at Lilleshall.”
Lilleshall National Sports Centre houses both the institutional offices of Archery GB and the country’s high-performance facilities.
“We try and offer those opportunities to people like Ella to come into Lilleshall at any opportunity we can. Last year, Ella and James Mason were both instrumental in helping the para team prepare for Tokyo. They were coming in during our prep camps to shoot against Jess, [eventual Paralympic Champion) Phoebe [Pine] and Nathan,” says Duggan. “We do recognise that we would want to be able to do more if we could.”
“When you go away and you see the compound team, in spite of maybe not training on a weekly basis together, the atmosphere and the culture among that group of athletes that are away, is really positive. They’re not strangers to one another.”
Creating culture, making friends and winning medals.
The team seemed to find the right combination during April, with an historic set of results at the first stage of the 2022 Hyundai Archery World Cup in Antalya.
Britain topped the medal charts with three golds and a silver – with both individual women’s winners being British, plus a gold in the recurve women’s team competition and silver in the recurve mixed team events.
Ahead of the event, Duggan had said that Antalya would be “…a good opportunity to see where we are at this stage”.
“We’ve created ourselves a platform,” says Duggan, when asked to look back at his pre-event comments. “We’ve given ourselves some belief about what we can do internationally.”
“What we’re not doing is getting carried away and thinking that the job’s done,” he continued. “This is just giving us a platform to move forward with and perhaps a bit of confidence that this slight change in approach and change in philosophy can actually start unlocking some of the performances on the international stage that we were able to do that week.”
He admits that such an unprecedented level of success wasn’t expected.
“We’ve been through quite a few changes in terms of some of the athletes, but also some of the staff changes as well. It’s fair to say the level of performance and the outcomes probably did exceed our expectations, albeit we are confident with the work we’re doing,” he explains.
Leading the way were Gibson and Pitman, both seemingly relaxed in the Turkey heat and both going all the way.
“Brilliant,” summarised Duggan when asked about what it meant to have winners in both disciplines. "It's often been the case that we haven't performed at the same time in both the categories. For it to come together at one event for both compound and recurve, to win individual golds, is the first time it’s been done from a GB perspective.”
"It's absolutely fantastic that they've both been able to perform at that level at the same event."
With their individual wins in Antalya, Gibson and Pitman secured places in the season-ending Hyundai Archery World Cup Final in Mexico later this year. It’s early to have spots – could this cause any issues with keeping focus for the remainder of the circuit?
“There’s plenty of evidence to show that success breeds success,” says Duggan. “The fact that we’ve got two athletes confirmed for the World Cup Final is brilliant. It’s there as something to inspire the rest of the team. It’s great for them to know that they’ve got that to look forward to at the end of the season.”
“They’ll have a target on their back and they’ll probably need to deal with more of a profile and the things that come with achieving these things, but we don’t write off any events [now]. It’s certainly something that we hope will spur on the rest of the team and we gather the momentum as a result of that.”
With the changes to the squad and an injection of youth, at just 25 years old Pitman is now one of the most experienced athletes in a team that includes a promising 17-year-old in Healey.
But Duggan has not felt the need yet to discuss any leadership roles with the recurver.
“We haven’t discussed it explicitly but I think what you can see from Antalya that she certainly led the way,” he explained. “She provided leadership in terms of her performances, but she also provided the composure to the rest of the athletes throughout the week as well, as did some of the other experienced athletes on the men’s side that have been to Games and were incredibly supportive of the women’s team and Bryony as well.”
Antalya saw British field the second-biggest squad delegation of archers and support staff behind the host nation, Turkey, something that wasn’t repeated at stage two. Travel, health and financial reasons prevented Gibson, Pitman and others from appearing in a diminished British squad.
“Turkey was the second stage of our selection shoot for the European Championships. We already cut down to four athletes in the recurve programme in each gender category but we made sure that we maximised the number of spots we’re able to enter for the first World Cup of the cycle,” says Duggan.
“We had Jess and Penny making their first World Cup appearances and we want to try and expose ourselves as much to high-quality competition as we possibly can. We went out to Turkey in March to train with the Turkish team for a training camp and know that if we’re going to be successful in this cycle we need to increase the number of meaningful arrows that the athletes are shooting and competition and training camps are part of that.”
The learnings the squad is trying to instil from an historic competition result almost sound as though they came from a training camp.
“When we had the debrief as a team, one of the things we discussed is that it was just a platform, something that we can use to move forward. If we look at what they got out of it, yes, they’ve got performance in terms of coming home with a medal and it’s great in terms of what exposure that will mean for the sport in this country, but it’s a platform for the rest of the cycle.”
“How we use that experience and harness it to be able to move our performances further on is the critical thing whilst not putting pressure on people.”
“What we don’t want to do is overburden young or new athletes with pressure and expectation because I think that becomes a burden,” he says.
After such historic results, Duggan had to manage expectations knowing that some of the world’s best archers were missing from Antalya. Teams from Korea and Mexico did not attend.
Is it a case of not becoming overconfident – or ensuring that athletes don’t doubt the validity of a result?
“You’re absolutely spot on,” he says. “At any point you can only beat who is there, who’s in front of you. In Antalya, we showed that we were the best recurve women’s team and best individually in the compound and recurve women.”
“We have to take confidence from that and belief because one of the biggest things that we want athletes to be able to do is show that they can win matches, win rounds and get into medal matches and handle the pressure and the expectation, irrespective of who they’re shooting against.”
In a sport such as archery where the margins are slim, not every event is going to look like it did in Turkey for Great Britain.
“There are more times in sport, particularly in archery, that you’re going to have days where you haven’t won or it hasn’t gone your way. So when you do have weeks like Antalya, it's important that they enjoy it and they celebrate it,” says Duggan.
“At the end of the day, it's a memory that going to live long in their careers. What we did doesn’t mean anything in terms of qualification for Paris, it doesn’t give us a free pass to the Olympics or anything like that.”
“We enjoy it, we celebrate it, but ultimately, we need to perform at the next opportunity. That was the message and all the athletes are on board with that.”