Miranda Leek

Clutch shooting: U.S. women London-bound

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."

An American archery thunderbolt

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."