How A Career Ends: Olympic gold medal archer Luann Ryon

 

How A Career Ends is an interview series in which Excelle Sports contributor Rob Trucks asks medal-winning Summer Olympians about the moment they knew their competitive athletic career was over.

Luann Ryon earned a world archery championship in 1977, national championships in 1976, 1977, 1978, and 1982, and in Montreal in 1976 she became the second American to win Olympic gold in Women’s Individual Archery. No American woman has won an Olympic medal in the event since. 

Ryon lives in her hometown of Riverside, California.

I was very athletic growing up. And we lived on a river, so I swam, I waterskiied, we hiked. I played all sports in high school, basketball, volleyball, softball. My senior year in high school we did archery for like two weeks, told the P.E. instructor it was the dumbest thing we ever did, graduated, went to Riverside to the community college, and the second semester I took archery because the tennis classes were full. And I ended up on the archery team there, and shot some collegiate records. Finished second at the collegiate nationals one year. My final year of college archery I met and became friends with the woman whose husband won the [Olympic] gold medal in archery in ’72, John Williams, and we all became friends, and he started coaching me. And then I ended up in the ’76 Games and won.

It’s kind of a remarkable story.

I’m very competitive. You know, I’m one to work harder. Maybe not a natural athlete, but a hard-working athlete with the will to win. I wouldn’t say I was a bad athlete. I was pretty good, but I don’t think I was, like, great at all sports. I just liked to do them.

I’m a big woman. At that time I wasn’t really heavy — I’m heavy now — but a pretty big woman, so I could actually shoot a heavier bow than some of the smaller women I competed against. And I think, I’ve never had the best hearing, so when people were distracted by things around us, I might not have necessarily ever heard them. Not that I have bad hearing, but people would say, Didn’t you hear that? Or, Didn’t that bother you? I don’t know that my concentration was so good that I could block everything out, but I think sometimes I just didn’t hear things that other people heard, that they were distracted by.

[More at Excelle Sports: How A Career Ends: Olympic gold medalist Jennifer Chandler]

My first semester in college all I did was whack the side of my arm, you know, so I was bruised. And then, as I got better, I could shoot really good in practice, but we’d get to tournaments and I’d be so scared at the beginning and I’d get so far behind that maybe I’d finish third or fourth. Sometimes second, but I never shot good enough at the beginning to actually win anything. But through practice, and John convincing me that I was better than I thought I was, I finally learned how to win.

I liked archery because I was good at it and I got to travel for free, but also, when you shoot that perfect arrow and you see it hit the center of the target, there’s just something about that, you know, to keep shooting that perfect arrow. I mean, it is a thrill to shoot that perfect arrow, from whatever distance, and see it hit. Boom. That’s a good feeling. You want to keep going until you get that perfect arrow.

It helps when you start winning. It helped a lot when I started winning, and having grown up, you know, never having been anywhere and then get to go out of country to Montreal and Australia and different places, somebody else paying the bill for me to go shoot arrows, that was very much incentive.

We shot indoors practice the winter of ’75, and up through the spring of ’76, indoors, up close, just working on form. Of course, in California you shoot outdoors all year long, Every time I shot a tournament in the spring I was a little bit better. My scores increased. So depending on where we shot and who we shot against, I got a little better and a little better, and then I made the Olympic tryouts [Trials]. I made the team, and my coach went to Europe and told everybody in Europe I was going to win the gold medal. Of course, nobody knew who I was.

He had been giving me equipment that was a little heavier, switching my equipment up but never telling me, so I was actually shooting a heavier bow than I thought, which was heavier than any of the other women in Montreal, but we did it slowly and gradually so I never noticed that there was a difference. You know, ignorance is bliss, I guess they say.

We got to Montreal and within two or three days I could barely hit the target. I had no idea what I was doing there, what was going on, but we were with the U.S. team. We were there a few days before the Opening Ceremony, you know, to get acclimated, get all your uniforms and everything. We didn’t compete until the very end of the Games, so I had like three weeks. I practiced in the morning with the team, and then in the afternoon with John and his wife, and just before the tournament started, right before we actually started shooting, I started to get things back together.

[More at Excelle Sports: How A Career Ends: Three-time Olympic gold medalist Carrie Steinseifer Bates]

I spent one morning session with the Russian coach, standing, watching me, taking notes while I shot 36 arrows, and I shot pretty good. And I thought, If I can do that with that kind of scrutiny, I started to feel pretty good about what was going to happen at the Games. And then, of course, the first day, the first morning I shot horrible, but I was like in seventh place and not very far out, and that was like the worst I’d shot all spring. I thought, All I have to do is shoot decent, and within a day and a half I had the lead, and then it was like Catch me if you can.

We shot for four days. You shoot 288 arrows over four days, 72 arrows a day. When we finished the third day, I had a pretty good lead. The Russians were second and third, and once again I totally freaked out [laughs]. You know, I might win this thing. But once we started shooting in the morning – 50 meters was the middle distance, and it was one of my better distances – once we started shooting 50 meters I kind of knew. Something bad would have to happen for me not to win.

There were a lot of nerves that third night, a lot of nerves. I didn’t sleep well. John came and got me. We went to A & W. He said I was a real basket case. He was almost worried about me before the fourth day. I was so nervous the third night I called home and talked to friends for hours, but I guess once I got up and got started then things eased up. Once I started shooting and got into the rhythm of things, I knew I was ok.

At that time I smoked cigarettes, so there were a lot of cigarettes involved.

I think it kicked in after I won. And it kind of really kicked in because that was the end of July in ’76, and in February of ’77 we had world championships in Australia, and of course I went home and practiced as hard if not harder. I didn’t want to be the one tournament . . . You know, she fell into the Olympics [laughs].

I made the team for the world championships. The Russian women had finished second and third, and one of them was there but the one that was closest to me was not there. She was home pregnant or something. And that was when I knew I was good. From the start of that tournament I knew I was going to win. I didn’t think there was anybody there that could beat me. And that was probably the start of me really feeling like, This was my sport.

We knew before tryouts that we weren’t going [in 1980]. You know, I think I finished fourth at the tryouts. It was kind of like it was hard to be really into it, you know. I kind of was practicing, but my heart wasn’t into it. We knew we weren’t going. Then I even shot worse at the nationals, and I actually took a bunch of time off and didn’t shoot until about two months before our ’81 nationals. I decided it was time to shoot, and then I went on this really practice hard, really watch what I eat, you know, no cigarettes, this clean living thing. And I finished second at the nationals, which kind of burned me because I got beat by somebody who didn’t know what she was doing [laughs]. She shot out of her head [laughs]. She was one of those one-time wonders. But I did win the nationals again in ’82, so that inspired me even more.

I went to the Olympic Trials in ’84 and didn’t make the team. That was in Long Beach. I had been born in Long Beach. It was in Los Angeles. And I had nerves that I never even knew [laughs]. You know, I wanted it so bad in Long Beach I just talked myself out of it, nervous-wise. I had been born in Long Beach, and I’d won one Olympics and here it was ’84 and they were going to compete in Long Beach and, you know, I thought that was going to be my time, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Disappointed. A little mad. And knowing I probably didn’t work as hard as I did in ’76. So, you know, there’s no excuse.

[More at Excelle Sports: How A Career Ends: Olympic bronze medalist Julia Trotman Brady]

I went to work in San Diego. Got a job and didn’t shoot again for quite a while. You know, was working full-time and not thinking too much about it, but then there comes that time when tournaments start coming around, you start missing those people that you compete against, that you traveled with, and you get that urge. You’re not going to quite be as good as you used to be, but you’re not ready to give it up.

I competed through ’88. I went to the ’87 Pan Am Games in Indianapolis. That was my last time to make a team. I was shooting pretty good in ’88, before Olympic tryouts.

When I made the ’87 Pan Am team, I really wondered if I really should’ve made that team. I went to the tryouts. I wasn’t shooting great, but I actually got on the target with Denise Parker, who was this young girl who was shooting very well, that I ended up rooming with there. Her energy, I just latched onto that. If I can keep up with her, and use her energy . . . I think that’s what helped me make the team in ’87, which was basically the end of my competitive career.

I was pretty much on my own. Sometimes you find somebody to practice with, so you might not spend as many hours out on the field and so . . . I’m still having fun with it, but I’m finding it’s more work than it used to be. It never was work before. Does that make sense? It all of a sudden became work.

I ended up not even going to the tryouts. You know, I’d changed jobs. Everybody else I knew was getting married and having kids, or moving on. It was harder to find somebody to practice with. Trying to get a job and pay bills. In ’83 they came out with money from sponsors for some of the upper athletes, and I did get money to train before the ’84 Games, but it just got harder and harder. And not having people, the supportive people that were shooting around me all the time, that was when I just took a job and said, I’m done. It’s getting harder to practice by myself, and be competitive.

I really thought I had one more shot in ’88. I had a friend that I trained with a little bit in ’88, but three weeks before the tryouts someone stole my equipment. And trying to put equipment together, everything that you need, and get it just right, and not having time to really train . . .

You know, the bow is an extension of you. I’m sure anybody with any sport that uses an object, be it a baseball mitt or a pole to pole vault or whatever, it becomes a part of you. You have to learn . . . It has to become a part of you, and I just felt like, where my shooting had been over the years, and having to get all new equipment in that short a period of time, that I wasn’t going to make it.

I didn’t even go to the Trials in ’88. I felt I was shooting pretty good. My friend that I’d been shooting with thought I was shooting pretty good. She and I had been friends for years. She had been watching me shoot for years, so she thought I was shooting pretty good and that I would’ve had a chance to make the team, but I just didn’t even go to the Trials.

JUL 21 1979, JUL 29 1979; Luann Ryon Is On The Mark Once More; Ryon's performance Saturday at the National Sports Festival put her in second behind Lynette Johnson.; (Photo By Ernie Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
JUL 21 1979, JUL 29 1979; Luann Ryon Is On The Mark Once More; Ryon’s performance Saturday at the National Sports Festival put her in second behind Lynette Johnson.; (Photo By Ernie Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Basically, it’s over. At that time I’d gone to work for Safeway in the meat department, in the meat cutter’s union. They were giving me all the time off I needed to shoot, and eventually I would go to work, you know, because the first year I was gone more than I was there. So that was really nice of them, but I just said, It’s just time for me to go to work. The time has come for me to retire from this, and go to work and pay my bills and grow up, I guess [laughs].

The bad thing was, from where my equipment was stolen, it was like somebody I knew took it. Somebody I knew was jealous enough or mean enough or something enough to take my equipment, and I just didn’t have any fight left. I was an angry person for a while.

Of course I watch, and I see, like, the Korean women shooting scores that I can’t even comprehend. I know the equipment has really changed over the years, but the scores they shoot now are just . . . How can anybody be that good? [laughs]

I set a world record in Montreal, and the Korean women are almost 100 points better. I’m like, Where does that come from?

I was better in Australia. My scores were higher in Australia. That was after. That was in ’77. That was the world championship. 144 arrows was a round, so 1440 was a perfect score. In Montreal I shot 1282. That was a world record, with a 2499 for a double round, which was an Olympic record. I had 2515 in Australia. I never shot 1300, but I had a lot of 1290s at different tournaments. I really thought I was better in Australia, but I was good from the very beginning.

I think you feel it before you see it. When you shoot the perfect shot, you feel it when you let it go. You know it’s the perfect shot. It may not hit the bull’s eye. You know, you go for groups and then you move your sight. And you may get lucky and shoot one that’s not so good that hits the bull’s eye but, you know, 36 arrows at one distance, you’re never going to shoot all of them perfect.

I’ve had some physical problems of late. In my mind, though, I can shoot a perfect arrow, but I can only shoot one [laughs].

I used to never tell people I was a gold medalist, because nobody ever believed me, but now I can tell people I’m a gold medalist, and when they don’t believe me I can say, Google me [laughs]. Google me if you don’t believe me.

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