Lopez versus Gibson: A golden era

Sara Lopez shoots at the 2022 Hyundai Archery World Cup Final in Tlaxcala.

We got what we wanted, at the season closer.

It was our Rumble In The Jungle. The world number one against the world number two. The first seed versus the second seed. The upstart hotshot versus the greatest of all time. The showdown that would define the season.

The Big One.

After their first two matchplay meetings coming in major championships this year, many archery commentators expected undefeated-on-the-year Ella Gibson to triumph for a third time over Colombia’s Sara Lopez, the winningest archer in the history of the Hyundai Archery World Cup and the reigning World Archery Champion.

Gibson, who had laid waste to every competition she entered all year, seemed to have adapted to her style and strategy – she had apparently learned how to beat Lopez. Meanwhile Lopez, for her part, seemed upset by the circus hype around this final outdoor meeting.

The superlatives that have been thrown out about Ella Gibson this season have, if anything, been understated. There have been a relentless stream of gold medals, and even a fourth-place finish at her debut World Archery Field Championships, an event in which she was not expected to excel.

It has been remarkable dominance, not seen since Lopez’s own period of transcendence in 2018, and Ella did it with good graces and a smile. It will be a difficult year to top.

So it’s easy to forget that Lopez, while going without a single major title this season, did break the matchplay world record in front of the cameras in Medellin. It was a ferocious head-to-head comeback and a perfect 150 points with 12Xs against the unlucky Andrea Becerra in the bronze medal match, barely 20 minutes after Sara had lost to… Ella Gibson.

Sara has been open this year about problems with motivation and more – but perhaps there has been too much focus on Lopez’s losses, and not on her terrifying abilities.

On the shaded field in the centre of Tlaxcala, Gibson had by far the tougher time getting to the business end. Her first match was probably the hardest of the day, with Ella edging out home favourite Dafne Quintero, 148-147, and coming back from a point down. Quintero delivered some serious quality and was a little unlucky – but Gibson had moved through the gears.

She then pulled out three ends clean to win after going down two points to former circuit champion Alejandra Usquiano, who seemed twitchy and intimidated against her. One Colombian champ gone, one to go – but perhaps too much energy expended. 

Lopez, for her part, strolled past a lacklustre Kim Yunhee and barely broke a sweat against Mexico’s second contender in this event, Andrea Becerra, who never found a groove. Another final. But for the first time in perhaps a decade, she wasn’t the favourite. 

On the stage, neither seemed like they would put the other on the canvas in the first end, each shooting a nine with their second arrow. Gibson seemed stoic, Lopez looked pained, like she was desperately trying to calm herself down. Like despite the pre-event denials of their rivalry, she absolutely knew what was at stake.

Then came the second end.

Gibson shot three nines and you felt the axis spin right around. The first nine was just out – just a small adjustment needed. Ella said afterwards that she thought it was in, but it wasn’t: “It put me right off.” Her second shot just got away too quick, like the tension needed relieving, and the third seemed like it almost didn’t get away at all, sitting in the bow, moving just a little too much. 

Gibson’s face fell. Suddenly, the whole complexion of the match had changed. Two points down, perhaps there was a chance. Three was impossible, surely?

Lopez took a deep breath before the third end, and almost fell over. A timing clock mishap seemed to rattle her, and her first arrow was a wide nine, almost an eight. Her next arrow fell off the rest, but she reset instantly, aggressively drew, and gunned off a fast shot – a superb 10.

The gap might have closed a fraction but the afterburners had fired.

Lopez knew it was right there for the taking. In full flight, she is thrilling to watch. Quicker and quicker, each shot more confident, with absolute certainty in her delivery. There are no questions, only answers. Again, again. She bounced on her feet. She couldn’t wait to get the next arrow in the air.

Gibson had found her mark but it was clear she was anything but calm.

Neither archer would miss the 10-ring again, Gibson closing out with nine straight to salvage a 146-point total for the 15 arrows. Lopez, comfortable with her lead, cruised to 148, the win and her seventh career Hyundai Archery World Cup Champion title. You sensed both of them will remember this one for some time.

Perhaps there was too much expectation on Gibson, even after the scorched earth she left behind this season.

Tlaxcala was, after all, only her first appearance at the Hyundai Archery World Cup Final – while it was Lopez’s eighth. (And Lopez didn’t win in her debut, in 2013, either.) There was an immense amount of pressure and expectation, not made any easier by the hard-driven grudge match storylines, on Ella’s shoulders.

She can’t be too upset after such a great year. Despite her short time at the time, she’s already displayed an unremitting approach to her own standards and will undoubtedly analyse what went wrong, and what she can work on. New chapters will be written.

As for the more opaque Lopez, she retains her crown as the queen of compound. But, as she’s said herself, it’s getting increasingly tough at the top.

Statistically, Lopez had a good season. She averaged 9.74 points an arrow, which ranks second-best over her 10 years on the international scene. (She only bettered it in 2019, with 9.76.) She won 83% of her matches, right around her career average of 89%. And she’s still unbeaten in tiebreaks since the start of 2018, winning all six she’s faced in that period.

Gibson shot a 9.79 arrow average in 2022, scoring points at a higher rate than Lopez has ever managed.

Gibson won 93% of her matches in 2022, better than all but Lopez’s undefeated season in 2019.

And Gibson, too, was undefeated in shoot-offs in 2022, while coming so close to snatching Lopez’s 72-arrow 50-metre qualifying world record at the circuit stages in Paris and Medellin. She’s made little secret of her desire to have it all.

Perhaps the royal metaphor has been pushed a little far. Perhaps the talk of rivalry is hyperbole. But the comparison between two phenomenal artists, performing at historic levels for the sport, is very much a reality.

It wasn’t our Rumble in the Jungle.

It was our Wimbledon final from 2006 – when Rodger Federer faced Rafael Nadal and the recent golden era in men’s tennis began to take shape.

Because we the compound women’s event in archery has now entered its own golden era, not dominated by a single person but spearheaded by two professionals – proudly positioned on near-equal groundbreaking standing – entertaining the world and pushing each other, and their peers, to new heights.

It’s a terrible cliche to say that the real winner here is the sport. But it genuinely is the case.

We haven’t seen the last big match between Ella Gibson and Sara Lopez – and who knows where this could go next?