Maybe there's something in the water in central Iowa, something that produces teen-age Olympic sport sensations. Three years ago, it was Shawn Johnson. This was way before "Dancing with the Stars." This was when Shawn was hanging out at Chow's Gymnastics & Dance and going to Valley High in West Des Moines. Shawn went to Beijing in 2008, won four medals, one of them gold on the balance beam, came back home and -- she was a star.
Miranda Leek, identified long ago as one of the best up-and-coming archers in the United States, graduated last month from Dowling Catholic, also in West Des Moines. Graduation Day came two days after her 18th birthday. The weekend before, at a trials event in pouring rain in New Jersey, she'd had to show nerves of steel to make the three-member 2011 U.S. world championships recurve team -- beating out older, more experienced rivals.
Making the team was just the start. A few days ago, at a World Cup event in Antalya, Turkey, the U.S. team -- Miranda, Jennifer Nichols, Khatuna Lorig -- stormed through the tournament to take the first-ever U.S. recurve World Cup silver medal. In a final marked by driving rain (again), with lightning in the area, the Americans fell to South Korea, 207-190.
The score didn't matter. The loss didn't matter.
What mattered was the thunderbolt of second place.
There's not just hope in American archery circles. There's excitement.
Archery can be super-complicated. Here's the essence of it all:
A recurve bow bends away from the shooter at the tips when the bow is strung.
To say that the American women's recurve team has for years been an under-performer would be -- well, gracious. And yet -- there's undeniably talent.
Lorig, a native of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, competed in her first Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, shooting for the Unified Team and winning a team bronze medal; she carried the flag for the U.S. team in the closing ceremonies in 2008, so honored after advancing all the way to the quarterfinals, finishing fifth, in the women's individual event.
Nichols is a two-time Olympian, 2004 and 2008, from Cheyenne, Wyo. She finished ninth in the women's individual event in Athens.
Talent, though, is not enough. You need depth. You need chemistry.
Lorig is now 37. She is married. She has an 18-year-old son -- that is, her son, Levan Onashvili, and Miranda Leek are the same age.
Nichols is 27. She is a dean's list student majoring in international studies at Texas A&M.
"I have amazing teammates," Lorig said. "It's kind of like we are meant to be together."
"When we're competing individually," Nichols said, "that's where our mental strength comes from -- the confidence in our ability, our training, our equipment. It all just comes together. If we can step to the line in confidence, we're going to come fully loaded and ready to shoot. When it comes to the team, we haven't felt this confident in years."
"They're really great," Miranda said. "We get along great together. Not just as archers. But as friends."
Mike Usherenko, Lorig's coach for 10 years, said she and Nichols have made it clear to Miranda that she -- Miranda -- absolutely belongs on the world stage and in return Miranda has brought "something to this team" that "we didn't have for some time," a "new level that all three an perform equally and support each other."
The U.S. head coach, Kisik Lee, who moved to the States in 2006 after serving as Australia's coach during the 2000 and 2004 Games, a man of distinct purpose and vision, observed simply, "They believe in each other. They believe in their relationship and in the team and in USA Archery. They didn't have that previously."
The world championships beckon, in early July in Torino, Italy.
"She is not just a 17-, 18-year-old girl," Lee said of Miranda, adding that the federation's "culture had changed" and she, a product of junior development programs, is emblematic of that.
He said, "I had a dream to make the USA the best team. I know we needed a better culture. We needed a team."
Archery is so much a mental game. Here's why there's so much excitement in American archery circles: "It's going well," Miranda said. "It's really fun."