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June 22, 2012

Clutch Shooting: U.S. Women London-Bound

By Alan Abrahamson for

Walking out to the target during one of Thursday's early matches at a shoot-off in Ogden, Utah, Khatuna Lorig raised her arms and yelled, "I love my team."

That's when everyone involved with USA Archery knew this was going to be a good day.

Climaxing a long and excruciatingly complex qualifying process, the full U.S. women's team qualified Thursday for the London 2012 Olympics, just 35 days ahead of the July 27 opening ceremony.

Heading to London: Miranda Leek, Jennifer Nichols, Lorig.

They will be the first U.S. women's archery team to compete at an Olympics since Athens in 2004, testimony to upgraded facilities, more funding and better coaching.

"After two Olympics and 11 years of competitive archery, this was the most pressure I have ever been under," Nichols said late Thursday.

"And we did it."

The U.S. men's team, No. 1-ranked in the world, qualified a year ago: Brady Ellison, Jake Kaminski, Jacob Wukie.

The pressure was on the U.S. women Thursday for two very, very different reasons.

One, archery is on the upswing in the United States, in large measure because of the success of the "Hunger Games" franchise, the book and the movie. It was Lorig who taught Jennifer Lawrence, who stars as Katniss Everdeen in the movie, to shoot a bow and arrow so convincingly.

And yet Lorig and the U.S. women found themselves in a fight to the very last day to make it to the Games.

That's because, two, the process for qualifying for London is, in a word, convoluted.

A little history:

In 2008, the U.S. women qualified two spots. Lorig and Nichols went to Beijing. Neither medaled. Lorig took fifth, best on the team, men or women.

For the 2012 Games, the rules are that countries can send either one athlete or a full team. A full team means three athletes. Not two.

The U.S. women did not qualify for the full team slot at last year's world championships in Torino, Italy. Leek and Lorig, with top-eight finishes, qualified for an individual spot. At the U.S. Olympic Trials, held just a couple weeks ago, Leek won that one individual slot.

So, Leek knew coming to Ogden this week, for what was called the Final Olympic Qualification Tournament, that she was going to London, no matter what. The "FOQT" - archery's procedural machinations can be very, very complicated - was held in conjunction with a World Cup event.

The question was whether Lorig and Nichols would go, too.

Lorig is not only a kinda-sorta movie star. She is a 1992 bronze medalist. She has competed in four prior editions of the Games, for the Unified Team, the Republic of Georgia and the United States. She is 38.

Nichols, again, was shooting for her third Games. She is 28.

Leek is 19.

To get an entire team to the Games meant Leek had to put aside whatever she might be feeling about her own self - after all, her own position was set - and be selfless.

Leek struggled some in the qualification rounds in Ogden. It was actually Olympic team alternate Heather Koehl who helped move the Americans up in the brackets to a third-place ranking for Thursday's decisive rounds, just behind Japan.

The U.S. women had to win three straight matches to get to London - against Romania, Belarus and Japan.

And here is where Leek, and the others, came on strong.

The Americans defeated Romania, 213-202.

They beat Belarus, 212-210.

Then, finally, they beat Japan, by six.

There was more shooting Thursday in Ogden but what matters is that three U.S. women are bound for London. And aiming for a medal.

"I feel like we shot really well," Leek said, adding, "We really buckled down. We worked as one today. We got the job done."

Lorig said, "I made a promise to Jennifer Lawrence that I would go to London and she made a promise to me that she would say, 'That's my coach.' You know what - in archery we," meaning the United States, "have a very strong team. The boys are strong. The girls are doing great.

"Expect the unexpected."

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