Paralympic runner-up Zuniga’s competition debut was field archery
Mariana Zuniga went from a feel-good story to a triumphant podium with an unanticipated medal-winning performance at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Arriving in Japan, she was Chile’s first-ever archer at the Paralympics. Leaving, she was a Paralympic silver medallist – having lost only to Great Britain’s Phoebe Paterson Pine in the final.
Not long before, the 20-year-old had no idea how much recurve would affect her life.
“I started at the age of 10 with recurve. I just did it as a hobby,” she said. “Then, when I was around 15 or 16, I took compound and practised in a place I found on the internet.”
That was one turning point.
And, just over one year on from that historic result at the Paralympics – and despite the fact that Zuniga shoots from a wheelchair – it’s actually the upcoming World Archery Field Championships in Yankton that brings up another.
“One of the people who was coaching me invited me to a field competition. It was my first experience with field archery,” she said.
“It was difficult because there was kind of mountains and I did not notice that before. I am in a wheelchair and that place was not accessible for people with disabilities.”
Not one to be beaten by the terrain, Zuniga was helped around the course by a group of willing volunteers.
“That was the first and the last time with field archery,” said Mariana. “Then, I started to compete in target events.”
The dedication shortly paid off.
“I met there a head coach and the president of the federation,” she recalled. “After that competition, the head coach and the Paralympic team coach made an interview with me, my mum and the person who was coaching me at that time.”
Opportunity beckoned – and her potential was not unseen.
“I do not know what he saw in me but invited me to the team. I think there were two people and me at that time,” she said. “It happened in November 2018. The next year, in June, I took part in my first para archery world championships.”
She finished ninth at that event in ’s-Hertogenbosch. The result was enough to convince Zuniga that she was on the right path.
“Then I sunk into archery and I said I wanted to be here, to practise archery and to help improve that part of archery. I wanted to motivate all the people to practise that sport,” she said.
In 2021, she made history for Chile when she appeared at the Paralympics in Tokyo. Her performance went far beyond the nation’s expectations.
“The medal achieved in Tokyo came as a big surprise. We did not expect that,” she said. “We expected to do a great job and to repeat all the things we practised.”
The winner of the Paralympics was given a quota to the recent Birmingham 2022 World Games. When champion Paterson Pine withdrew, Zuniga was offered the spot in her stead.
“It was a surprise, too. I did not expect to be part of this event,” said Mariana. She finished 17th, losing her opening match by just a point. “Both of those events were so amazing and they are one of the biggest moments in my life. I really appreciate all the experiences with people there, the level all the compound women showed, and not just my achievements.”
She’s come a long way from that first – field archery – competition.
“I started competing three years ago in January. In March and April, I took part in my first international events. I was in a dream,” she said. “I remember that I talked to my mum and said: ‘Can you imagine that? I could travel all over the world competing, visiting beautiful places. My mother was like, ‘oh yes, it would be amazing’.”
“And now I am living in that dream,” she continued. “I always say that archery is the best thing that could ever happen to me. It came to my life to teach me very important things.”
Zuniga won’t be competing at the World Archery Field Championships when they start next week in Yankton. She will be competing on home soil in Chile at the Pan and Para Pan American Championships in November – in both the able-bodied and impaired events, where she has a chance to qualify for both the Pan and Para Pan Am Games.
“It is an essential part of my life,” said Zuniga, when asked about her future in the sport. “I feel like I have my second family there. My life has completely changed because of archery.”