Brady Ellison: Bows, bullseyes and the expanses in between

Brady Ellison of the United States competes in the Men's Individual Quarter-final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Brady Ellison of the United States competes in the Men's Individual Quarter-final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Global archery superstar Brady Ellison is every inch an American original. He sat down for an exclusive chat with Tokyo 2020 to discuss his Olympic tattoos, a brush with a career-ending injury and his life-long love of the hunt – on the competition stage and out in the wilderness.

The pain started in the tip of his middle finger.

Soon it spread up his right arm, the one Brady Ellison uses to draw back 50 or so pounds of tension through his recurve bow. “It felt like bolts of lightning when I shot,” the 32-year-old Team USA archer told Tokyo 2020 from his rural home in Globe, Arizona on the wide-open expanses of an almost mythical American West.

Guatemala 2021 World Cup (Stage 1) Results

The pain began shortly after he won team silver and individual bronze at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. It kept up through all of 2017 and intensified through 2018. “The doctors told me I should just quit,” said Ellison after a procession of specialists, MRIs and tests of all kind.

“It got to the point that either I’m done shooting or I’m just going to be subpar.”

It’s important to note that Ellison’s definition of subpar is nowhere near yours or mine. Even in the throes of his mystery injury, cutting the number of practice arrows he shot in a day by half, he never dropped below top-seven in the world. He was still reaching world cup finals. He was winning competitions.

“But in my head, I wasn’t shooting or training at the level I wanted to,” said Ellison, who admitted to improvising with his technique to stay competitive through the pain.  

Chasing perfection – considering quitting 

Ellison’s commitment to shooting straight is absolute.

Archer Brady Ellison poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on November 20, 2019 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Archer Brady Ellison poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on November 20, 2019 (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

He craves a performance as close to perfection as physics and general reality will allow. Half measures don’t suit him. It’s what led the archer to consider retiring from the sport and heading into the dangerous depths of the local copper mines that surround his home around the Pinal Mountains of central Arizona. “I wouldn’t have been picky,” he said with a shrug. “I would have done anything to provide for the family.”

It’s through family that Ellison finds strength. He welcomed a son, Ty Cooper Ellison, to the world in the tough times of the COVID-19 pandemic, when worldwide archery competitions were cancelled and much of the prize money he relies on went off the table.

His wife of five years, Toja – a world top-ten compound-bow archer who competes for Slovenia – came up with an unusual option to treat an injury that had stumped doctors and threatened her husband’s career. “Before I met Toja there’s absolutely no way in hell I would have considered seeing a bio-energetist,” said Ellison, a man whose reliance on no-frills, common-sense solutions fairly oozes from him. “I’ve never met this guy before and before he even starts treating me, knowing nothing about my situation, he’s saying ‘you have a problem in your right hand and you have something wrong with your Achilles,’ and I’m just looking at the guy and he’s right. So, I’m like ‘OK. Fix me.’”

“It’s gonna sound crazy,” said Ellison, who’s had his share of physical challenges in life including a serious thyroid condition and a bout with Perthes disease as a child that landed him in leg braces for more than a year. “But he [the natural healer] just puts his hands on you and heals you with his body energy. And I haven’t had any pain since.”

Top of the heap with roots sunk deep

This is a man who believes in solid principles. Objects he can touch. Targets he can hit. But results don’t lie. Three days after his experimental treatment, he fired off more arrows in a single day than he had in three years. The next year, in 2019, he won a world title and returned to the world number-one spot for the first time since 2013 – the year after he won a team silver at the London Olympic Games.

He’s a product of his environment. He lives just up the road from the Ellison Family Farm, run by his father, Alfred. His roots go eight generations deep in the wilds of the U.S.’ vast West. The area’s virtues of humility and self-sufficiency are alive in Ellison. It’s why early nicknames like ‘The Arizona Cowboy’ and the ‘Prospector’ stuck to him.

Brady Ellison of the United States celebrates winning a bronze medal in the Men's Individual Round at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Brady Ellison of the United States celebrates winning a bronze medal in the Men's Individual Round at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

When he first hit the global scene at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, he was as a rough-and-ready teenager more comfortable in an old cowboy hat than the Ralph Lauren designer gear handed out to Team USA that year.

He’s often bearded, leading to a viral meme at the Rio Games that compared him to Leonardo DiCaprio’s frontiersman in the 2015 film The Revenant. “It’s all anyone wanted to talk about in Rio,” Ellison laughed about his sudden fame outside the insular world of archery. “But the only similarity is that we both looked awful!”

“He's loved archery his entire life,” said Brady’s father, who bought his son his first bow when he was a six-year-old and supplied him with toy versions in the years before that. “It's been his passion forever.”

Science and essence – the Ellison Method

Ellison is a resident at Team USA’s high-tech training hub in Chula Vista, California, complete with the latest and greatest in scientific and structured technologies and methodologies. But he still loves to use a bow to hunt and fish in the mountains and streams near his home.

It’s no surprise that Ellison’s weapon of choice in competition is the recurve bow. Simpler than the compound version, the recurve is a closer approximation of the primitive weapons human beings have used to sustain themselves for tens of thousands of years.

“All of the meat we eat here [at the family home] either comes from hunting or what we raise,” said Ellison, who killed his first bear at the age of 11 (the bear now serves as a rug in his father office). “We don’t buy any meat from the store – only vegetables and salmon, because my wife and I both like salmon but I’m not the best fisherman and we don’t have a lot of salmon in Arizona.”

The Olympics are just special...

It’s the ultimate sporting event.

This do-it-yourself ethos, born of being raised among farmers and ranchers, meant Ellison was singularly situated to ride out the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic that paralysed much of the sporting world. He took the time to lay a wood floor in his workshop and create his own rough-hewn training centre – all while raising a litter of piglets and lending a helping hand at the Ellison Family Farm. “I set up my own indoor range here [on his six-acre property],” he said. “They’re just two sheds pushed together but it works as an indoor range. It’s a set-up that lets us do the things we need to do.”

And what needs doing, aside from raising pigs and mending fences, is shooting arrows. Hundreds and hundreds of arrows a day.

It’s these true-flying arrows, and the bullseyes they crave, that have occupied Ellison since he was a boy. “The more I practiced with it [the bow], the better I got,” he said of his early obsession with archery. “But the more I practiced soccer or basketball, I just stayed the same. I was average at a lot of things, but with archery I was above and beyond. It grew from there.”

Archer Brady Ellison of the United States poses for a photo with his bronze and silver medals (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Archer Brady Ellison of the United States poses for a photo with his bronze and silver medals (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

Growing up hunting and fishing with his grandfather, his father and his uncles, Ellison’s skill with the bow, his rare comfort and accuracy, developed quickly. Competitions followed. By the time he was 16, he was a resident in Chula Vista, where he proudly mounted a deer head and a Corsican (long-horned) sheep head on the wall of the apartment he shared with a pair of other young American prospects.

The Olympics matter to Ellison. They become his goal as soon as they became a reality. It’s why he gave up his last two years of high school to live and breathe archery in southern California. The three tattoos on his right forearm – on display for all to see when he draws back his bow – are evidence of his Olympic dreams and ambitions.

Olympics No. 4 for Ellison

“The Olympics are just special,” said Ellison, who’s won three medals in his three Olympic Games (Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016) and is looking forward to his fourth appearance, and, hopefully, that elusive gold medal. “It’s the ultimate sporting event. It’s just always special to be part of it. Once you get to go to the Games, nothing else matters except trying to get back to another one.”

Ellison – who says he wants to compete until at least the LA Games in 2028 – won’t be best pleased with his return to major competition in late April of 2021 at a world cup event in Guatemala. After dominating the first round in the individual competition, he fell to Dutch youngster Gijs Broeksma in the second round and missed out on the later stages.

“It’s been a year and a half and you don’t really have a sense of where anyone is at,” said Ellison of the big gap in international competition caused by the pandemic. “I’m just hoping it’s a matter of knocking the dust off and not finding too much rust that we’ll need to do bodywork on.”

Ellison is used to the occasional bump in the road and he isn’t the kind to let a slip-up get him down. In him, you find that commitment to excellence common among those at the top of their fields.

“If you do something for a long time – it doesn’t matter what it is – you get to kind of know how things work,” said Ellison, when asked about the feeling of hitting the bullseye from 50 or 70 metres. “As soon as the arrow is in the air, anything can happen. But when you’re in one of those days when there’s no doubt in your mind, and you know where it’s going to go, those days are really fun.

“You kind of feel, more than human,” added the man who can’t even estimate how many arrows he’s shot in his life – likely tipping into seven-figure territory.

“What’s special is that moment when everything is lined up and everything is coming together,” said Ellison about being out on the target range or on a hunt – or building back from one of many challenges. “It’s a surreal feeling when there’s no doubt in your mind and you know, you just know, where it’s going to go.”

Brady Ellison of USA during the Men's recurve team finals during the Archery World Cup 2019 Stage 4 in Berlin, Germany.  (Photo by Dean Alberga/World Archery Federation via Getty Images )
Brady Ellison of USA during the Men's recurve team finals during the Archery World Cup 2019 Stage 4 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Dean Alberga/World Archery Federation via Getty Images )
2019 World Archery Federation