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When Alex Gilliam and his younger brother were sent along to an archery lesson by their parents, two things of note occurred. First, his sibling turned tail and decided shooting arrows was not for him, and secondly Alex found his calling. He is now among the top recurve archers in the country.
“My brother's reason for walking away – and I remember exactly what he said – he said the coach scared him,” recalled Gilliam with a laugh. “For me, I liked archery, and I really wanted to stick with it, because I’m asthmatic and doing a lot of sports was really tough for me growing up.”
Through elementary school Gilliam was introduced to various sports by his parents, such as t-ball, flag football, soccer and basketball, and although he was not bad at them he was aware that his stamina suffered as a result of his condition.
“I had a lot of breathing problems which meant that I couldn’t keep up with everybody over long periods of time,” Gilliam explained. “So, when we had the opportunity to try archery, I enjoyed it; I definitely wasn’t bad at it by any means and kept wanting to go back for classes.”
It is not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that discovering archery had quite the positive affect on a young Gilliam.
He said, “Once I’d finished fifth or sixth grade, I knew that if I wanted to keep playing basketball I would have to go up a league and I was pretty demoralized because I knew that if I went up a league I would go from coming off the bench to getting no playing time at all.
“But doing archery, at some of the first state events that I went to, I was able to pick up a bronze medal in the U15 division. I still have the medal to this day. It’s one of the few local tournament medals that I keep around, and for me it was showing how much that award meant to me at that time. I’m pretty sure I cried that day because I didn’t think it was possible.”
That moment was the catalyst for the teenage Gilliam. On finding a sport he was both good at and enjoyed was a game-changer. No longer was he the kid overlooked, or warming the bench, or struggling to keep pace with teammates. He was where he belonged, an athlete others looked up to and someone who was in demand.
“Growing up, although it was aerobic, I originally thought that basketball would be my sport,” he recalled. “It was the one I had the least amount of problems with, though that fizzled out.
“But finding archery and being able to go in and practice without using my rescue inhaler, or be just completely out of breath, it was a realization that I can actually put in a good amount of time into this and not feel like I’m killing myself after every practice.”
Gilliam now had a sport where he could actually set himself goals. From local events, to eyeing opportunities at state level, then the national scene and perhaps being competitive on the world stage, here was a young man at home with bow in hand.
“Sitting here among the top 16 in the country, for me the Olympic dream has never felt more real, more alive,” Gilliam added.
Gilliam sits seventh after two stages of the 2024 Olympic Games U.S. Team Trials. Stage 3 takes place ahead of the Arizona Cup in early April.
Being the kid nobody wants on their team, or granted token minutes in games can impact a child’s self-esteem, and for Gilliam that was the case, until archery came along.
“I remember going to a class with my friends,” he began. “We all had house bows and as you progressed in the class you worked your way down the range, stepping up in target difficulty.
“I was shooting well and the coach asked me if I wanted to join the competitive team or if I was looking to try out for the competitive team. I’m like, ‘sure, yeah, let’s give this a go’.”
And that was the moment. That was the moment Alex Gilliam was no longer along for the ride, picking up participation trophies – something he disliked, by the way – or receiving the practice ball at baseball for being the best player in practice. Gilliam was convinced he was the last player to receive that particular ‘prize’ “because I was the only one left.”
“To go from not getting much recognition from teammates or coaches, to ‘oh, wow, this coach wants me to be on the team, this coach sees something in me’.
“Before I started shooting archery I was very introverted, I was very emotional and didn’t want to interact with too many people.
“Not doing fantastic at sports really hurt my confidence and my self image, so being able to shoot and being able to build my confidence and being around a team that I felt valued in, that I respected and respected me, helped me become a lot more extrovert.”
From his local club, Gilliam progressed to Junior Dream Team - a program developed to bridge the gap between Junior Olympic Archery Development and the Resident Athlete Program - and now finds himself excelling at the collegiate level at Texas A&M University (TAMU) alongside other Olympic hopefuls Trenton Cowles and Riley Marx.
Born in Texas but raised in the Atlanta area, Gilliam is studying mechanical engineering at TAMU. He finished his undergraduate degree in May with a 4.0 GPA and is currently pursuing his masters, with hopes of applying that to a career in motorsports, whether Formula 1 or endurance racing, or – of course – archery, a sport that has given him so much.
And just to come full circle, Gilliam’s younger brother did return to archery. He picked up a compound bow and shot in a couple of competitions but has now pursued other options.
“If he’d stuck with it, he could’ve been a really good shooter,” Gilliam suggested. “Maybe he could’ve been here with me in the Trials.
“But he’s found stuff that he really enjoys and usually when you find something that you really enjoy, then you tend to focus on it and get very good at that thing.”
So, just like his older brother, then?