Natalia Valeeva’s story: arrow-by-arrow

20 July 2015
Lausanne (SUI)
At Europe’s first continental Games – Baku 2015 – Italy collected two team gold medals in the archery events – and Natalia Valeeva was part of both those teams.

Six-time Olympian and former world number one Natalia Valeeva enjoyed her time in Baku from the very start.

Her qualification round went well, both for her individually and for the Italian teams. She ranked third with 653 points – and nine behind recurve women’s leader Lisa Unruh – while the women’s trio she led also took the number three seed.

Italy’s mixed team, Valeeva and top men’s qualifier Mauro Nespoli, landed first.

They made it through to the mixed team final, which would be against Georgia. The Italians needed the first set to catch their breath, missing the middle and handing the first two set points their opponents’ way.

With three of four 10s in set two, the Italian team quickly caught up.

Set three brought another three arrows in the centre out of Italy, while Georgia trailed: 4-2 and a chance to seal archery’s first gold medal at the first European Games. Needing only a set draw for the win, the Italian pair put their last arrow into the middle to balance a series in which Georgia heaped the pressure – and take the match and gold, 5-3.

After a first medal and what would turn out to be a disappointing individual competition, which saw the third seed duck out to Georgian Yulia Lobzhenidze in the second round, Valeeva lined up with teammates Guendalina Sartori and Elena Tonetta for a run at the recurve women’s team podium.

The girls topped Greece to open the head-to-heads, then toppled world medallist Denmark in the quarters in a shoot-off. A semifinal against Russia ended 5-3 in Valeeva and Italy’s favour – and, in the space of a day’s competition, Italy and Natalia were into her second gold final of the event.

It would be against Belarus: Hanna Marusava, Alena Tolkach and Ekaterina Timofeyeva.

The Italian’s first shot landed centre, but the rest couldn’t quite find the middle. Belarus was wilder: 44 points to Italy’s 50 and a quick lead.

Belarus levelled it up, two sets in, then the two teams split the third set to drive the match to 3-3 – with one set remaining in regulation competition. And in that last set, Belarus put too many in the red.

Italy posted 52 to their opponent’s 50 and Valeeva won her second gold medal of Baku 2015.

For Natalia, a veteran of six Olympic Games since 1992, the medals were an impressive addition to her already-extensive tally: “I am always proud to win a competition. A medal is a medal.”

And Valeeva has plenty of those.

As well as a pair of bronze medals at her Olympic debut at Barcelona 1992 – in the individual and team competitions – Natalia has hauled in a total of 10 world titles in team, individual and mixed team events over the indoor and outdoor championships held since 1991.

Her most recent individual title came at the Las Vegas 2012 World Archery Indoor Championships. She beat young USA archer Miranda Leek in the final, but the match was tight until the very end, she recalls.

In fact, a single point separated the pair.

The Italian women’s team also had bronze at that event.

Most recent, but not the most significant, in Valeeva’s mind, at least. That honour, she says, goes to the individual gold medal she won at the outdoor worlds in Leipzig, Germany in 2007.

She was, earlier that year, pregnant with her twin daughters and found it extremely challenging to get back into competitive shape ahead of the event.

The final match was against top Korean and women’s world record holder at 70 metres – at the time – Sung-Hyung Park, who is widely respected as one of the best archers of all time. Park took a one-point advantage after the first end.

(In 2007, recurve finals were decided over 12 arrows and cumulative scoring.)

It was in the second half of the match that the tide turned. Sung-Hyung’s lead evaporated and Valeeva jumped ahead, her last arrow securing a two-point win, 108-106, and her second World Archery Champion title after Jakarta, 12 years earlier.

“I had the desire to win,” recalls Valeeva. “But I knew it would not be that easy. The fight was until the last arrow.”

Jakarta 1995, Valeeva’s first title, was her last world event representing Moldova. By that time, she says, she had developed “the perfect preparation technique”, which allowed her to win both the indoor and outdoor worlds in the same year.

“Jakarta, in Indonesia, was really hot and had extremely high humidity. Match conditions were very heavy,” Valeeva says.

“I was very aware that I had to win a quota place for the Olympics in Atlanta in the individual and team competitions. I was scared we would not qualify, but individually I wanted it so badly that I got to the final match against Barbara Mensing from Germany.”

Valeeva got the spot and went on to Atlanta to represent Moldova, then joined the Italian team soon after.

The highlight of Natalia Valeeva’s Olympic career to date, though, dates back even further – to Barcelona 1992, where she represented the Unified Team and took bronze in the individual and team events.

It was the first Olympiad in which the archery event was decided over the 70-metre head-to-head round. The top 32 athletes after a 1440 Round, four-distance qualification progressed to the elimination phase.

“The Olympics of Barcelona are so important to me because it was my first Olympics and I had such trouble participating.”

“The team had qualified Khatuna Lorig and Lyudmila Artannikova and the third girl on the Unified Team was supposed to be Russian.”

Lorig now competes for the USA.

“The coach required us to shoot selection competitions with a high-poundage bow – and only when I arrived in Barcelona was I allowed to compete with my bow.”

“I was persistent,” says Natalia. “And that allowed me to qualify for the Games – and I’m really happy I got there, because I won two medals.”

Not every event was such a success, however – and there‘s one in particular that Natalia admits she would like to redo: The European Championships in 1990. She was first until the last of the four distances.

“I forgot to adjust my sight and the first arrow missed,” she says. “I wasn’t able to catch the rest in the race and the disappointment of that event remained with me for many years.”

Valeeva, who still competes at the highest level, still loves to travel.

Fascinated by every country she visits, Valeeva says they all have their own charm – but picks out Santo Domingo as her favourite visit in all her years competing. She says it was relaxing.

But relaxing is not what she competes for: “My next goal is to earn the Olympic quota card for Rio 2016,” the former world number one concludes.

“We go to the Copenhagen worlds and quota tournament at the end of this month. Then it is my aim to win an Olympic medal in Rio.”

Since the start of Olympic quota tournaments, Natalia Valeeva has won a medal at every single one – save New York in 2003. She took individual gold at Jakarta 1995 (ahead of the Atlanta 1996 Olympics), team gold at Riom 1999 (ahead of Sydney 2000), individual gold at Leipzig 2007 (ahead of Beijing 2008) and team gold at Turin 2011, before London 2012.

It is an incredible record. The question is: Will it continue in Copenhagen?