“It was not a bad performance,” Jyothi Surekha Vennam says when asked to sum up her performance at the Archery World Cup in Paris on Saturday. That’s an understatement.
The 25-year-old from Vijayawada first won gold alongside veteran Abhishek Verma in the compound mixed team event –the first for an Indian pair in that category at a World Cup. Later in gusty winds and persistent rain she would shoot a perfect 150 in her second-round match and wouldn’t have a single round score less than 146/150 as she made the final of the individual category. There against Ella Gibson, Jyothi would be tied 148/150 before falling short by the barest of margins on the shoot-off – the Indians’ arrow finding the 10 ring but fractionally outside the inner circle, unlike her opponent.
But while gold and silver might seem impressive in their own right, it's the context in which Jyothi won them that makes them even more significant.
If you’d told Jyothi that she’d have a day like this, a little less than three months ago, she probably wouldn’t have believed it. Not because she couldn’t – this is exactly the sort of performance you’d come to expect from someone who was runner-up at last year's world championships, had been the first to shoot a televised perfect 150 and had six world championships and seven World Cup medals prior to her results in Paris. It was because inexplicably, India’s best women’s compound archer wasn’t even in the national team.
On the afternoon of March 29th on the archery range at the Sports Authority of India campus in Sonepat, Jyothi felt as if the bottom had fallen out of her world. At the selection trials to pick the Indian compound archery team for the first three world cups of the season, the 25-year-old from Vijayawada had finished 8th. In the final round-robin stage of the selection trials, she would lose five matches out of seven. She’d strung together some of the worst scores of her career. “I had two scores of 141 (out of 150) one score of 142, 143 and 144,” she recalls.
As a result, Jyothi was dropped from the team which was to travel, not just for the first three (out of a total of four) world cups of the year, but also for the Asian Games and the World Games. Jyothi isn’t one who has extreme swings of emotion but this was undoubtedly a bad result. “It came as a shock.
I can’t explain that feeling in words. I didn’t expect such a thing to happen. The last time I was not part of the Indian team was in 2016 and that was mostly because I had an equipment failure in the trials, not because I’d shot badly,” she says.
Compound archery isn’t an Olympic Games event. The Asian Games and the World Games are the most prestigious tournaments for the sport. What was doubly frustrating for Jyothi was the fact that she’d won one of India’s quotas for the world games through her silver medal at last year's world championships. “These are events that come in once every four years. So missing out on them meant that I had just lost four years were just gone like that,” she says.
It wasn’t as if Jyothi didn’t have reasons she could blame for her loss in the trials. They were held just two days after the National Championships in Jammu – where she had coasted to victory. The train journey to Sonepat had been tiring which probably explains why after dominating the first day and a half of the trials, Jyothi’s shooting completely fell apart in the final half-day in windy conditions.
“Ultimately though the trials were the same for everyone. At that time I just wanted to go home,” she recalls thinking. “I was feeling very low at that time. I wasn’t really thinking of shooting. I didn’t even want to talk much at that time. Every time I did, it triggered feelings of sadness. I just tried to keep a distance from it. Even when I tried to avoid it, I remembered I couldn’t perform well and I was out of the team,” she says.
At her lowest point though, Jyothi found support. “It wasn’t just from my family but also from my coaches and teammates. And Abhishek (Verma) bhaiyya told me that I had to keep training. Because you never know when you might get another chance. I also realised that. If I got a chance, then I had to be ready. I couldn’t afford to make another mistake,” she says.
While her teammates competed at the World Cups, Jyothi returned to the camp and focused on her training. “Even though I was out of the team for the first three World Cups and the Asian Games, I thought at least I have a chance to compete in the fourth world cup of the year (in Colombia). Since I suddenly had a lot more time I felt that I could work on things that had not been able to prioritise,” she says.
Jyothi says she worked on her physical fitness which in turn saw her increase the poundage of her bow (the force needed to draw the bowstring). “I used to use a 51-pound bow but after a few weeks I started feeling it was really light so I started using a 54-pound one,” she says. She would make a change to her arrows as well. She’d typically been using a bolt with a shaft length of 32 inches. Now, able to put more power in her shots, she started using a bolt with a shaft length of 33.75 inches and a little heavier too. That additional length allowed her to draw the bolt further and also partially negated the effects wind would have had on a lighter arrow.
Even as she prepared, other things fell in place. First, the Asian Games would be called off for this year following another outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in China. Then in her absence, the Indian women’s team struggled to win just a single bronze in the two World Cups. With the team performing poorly and the Asian Games themselves postponed. That was grounds to call for fresh selection trials. “It wasn’t like I was hoping for the team not to do well. But I felt, OK, I’ve got a chance. I have to make this count,” she says.
Jyothi would do just that, by finishing in first place at the selection trials and earning a place at the Paris World Cup and also the World Games. “I really missed being part of the first team. Once I was back in it I didn’t want to lose that feeling,” she says.
In Paris, it was as though she had never been away. After finishing the qualification round with a score just a point short of her personal best (706/720), she’d carry that form into the individual and mixed team competitions as well. The work she put in while assuming she was out of the team paid off. The heavier arrows and increased poundage she was using meant she was able to better compete in gusty conditions which might otherwise have pushed lighter arrows off course.
And while she’s satisfied with her medals, that’s just a bonus for her. “Before the competition, I wasn’t really thinking about medals. I just wanted to shoot well rather than focus on my results. I just wanted to feel satisfied with how I was shooting,” she says. And while she came up just short in the individual event, she’s confident she can do one better at the World Games. “I got a silver this time but maybe next time I can turn it into gold,” she says.
But that silver for now has its own place. “You learn something from every tournament you compete in. Three months ago, I wasn’t even thinking I’d be going to Paris. And if I’d stopped working maybe that would actually happen. What I realised is you need to keep working hard. Because sometimes you get a second chance. And if you are prepared you can grab it when you get it,” she says.