Even for Archery Prodigy Liko Arreola, the Journey to Becoming a Champion Is Full of Highs and Lows
Liko Arreola draws her Hoyt and settles her dot on the golf-ball-sized 10 ring. Somewhere between drawing and releasing, a dozen things could go wrong. Liko could be distracted by the shifting crowd, or a fellow competitor, or the fact that she’s shooting for a prestigious title and thousands of dollars. The Vegas Shoot demands perfection, because it only takes one slip-up — just one arrow out of the 10 ring — and she loses. So even when her release aid fires and her first arrow finds the target’s center, there’s no time to celebrate because Liko needs 89 more perfect arrows over three days to become the champ of the 2021 Vegas Shoot.
That’s a difficult task for even the most seasoned archer, which Liko was not — and still isn’t. She was only 13 years old. That year was her first time competing against archers who had more championships than she had birthdays. Yet Liko fired 90 consecutive arrows into the 10 ring to become the youngest Vegas Shoot Champion of all time.
It’s hard to overstate what an accomplishment that was. A 13-year-old can be an exceptionally talented golfer, but they’re not teeing off in the U.S. Open, let alone winning it. Yet Liko, now 16, did the equivalent in archery — twice . The following year at the 2022 Vegas Shoot, she tied Paige Pearce and Tanja Gellenthien (two veteran pros) with a perfect score. In a sudden-death elimination, she outshot them both. Last year she made her World Cup debut by beating legendary Colombian archer Sara López in her home country for the gold medal. If becoming the first woman in history to win back-to-back Vegas Shoots with perfect 900s wasn’t enough to make her talent clear, that World Cup victory against one of the best archers of all time solidified Liko’s ascension into pro archery’s elite.
Apart from her track record of high-profile wins, one of the most impressive things about Liko is that she’s achieved all this with limited access to major tournaments. Most Americans can drive or take a short flight to one of the national-level tournaments. But Liko is from Maui, where there is no local archery range and she’s coached by her father. Attending the closest big tournament means a flight to the mainland.
So how has this rookie defeated adults with decades more experience and professional support? How has she developed such a strong mental game? And how does Liko, who is still just a kid, deal with all that pressure?
Far from her home on Maui, I met up with Liko and her parents at a tournament last fall to find out.
Liko’s Start in Archery
The USA Archery Target Nationals is an event without the fanfare of the World Cup and Vegas Shoot, held on an athletic field in a Philadelphia suburb that usually hosts youth soccer games. I joined the Arreolas for Liko’s pre-tournament practice. It’s a relaxing day when archers can shake off their travel rust and shoot on the tournament field. It’s also a social occasion that allows competitors to catch up before the tournament gets serious.
I’ve covered the World Cups for World Archery and the Archery Trade Association. I’m also a competitive shooter myself. So I’ve met nearly all the great archers in the country; most exude the confidence you’d expect from an elite athlete. But Liko is polite, humble, and selective with her words. She generally kept to herself as she diligently practiced for the next day’s tournament. Her parents, Teri and Ryan Arreola, are warm and inviting. As most competitors swapped pleasantries around us all day, the Arreolas took time to talk to people who stopped to say hello and handed out gifts of Hawaiian treats.
Liko is quieter than her parents, at least around new people. My first impression of Ryan and Terri was spot on, but as I got to know Liko throughout the day, I came to realize that beneath her calm exterior is a competitor’s spirit — much like the hero of the movie that got her interested in archery.
When she was six, Liko first watched the Disney Pixar movie Brave. The protagonist, a fiercely independent girl who wins an archery tournament, spurred Liko to give the sport a try. At the time there weren’t any bow dealers on Maui, so her dad had to take her to Honolulu to buy her first bow and compete in her first tournament a year later.
“Immediately I started liking it, and it was something interesting and new,” Liko says. “My first competition was that local tournament in Honolulu. And it seemed really fun to me, but then again, I’m really competitive with other people.”
Not only did Liko enjoy archery, but she was good at it.
“She picked it up pretty quick. It just came naturally to her,” Ryan said. “The way she drew the bow and had that focus downrange, those are things that she did on her own. The only part I helped her with was equipment, how to go through shots, and a little bit of mental management.”
The Making of a Champion
Liko was 12 when she had a breakthrough in her shooting that would make her a well-known name in the archery world.
“I couldn’t even get close to a 900,” says Liko, referring to the perfect 90-arrow score she’d need to have a chance at winning the Vegas Shoot. “But during COVID, I started practicing and training more, since school was online. I trained as hard as I could.”
Liko shoots about three hours every day at her 20-yard backyard range, or on a nearby farm where she can shoot up to 50 meters. Her father, a former competitor himself, coaches her form and mental game.
“She ended up getting more consistent with her shots,” her dad says. “She got to the point where she could literally compete with the pro women.”
In my short time getting to know Liko, it was obvious she wants to be the best. To accomplish that, she has to compete against the best. So it’s not surprising that, even as a 13-year-old, she wanted to enter a division that pitted her against the best women in the sport. Liko had won many local tournaments and a youth division at the Vegas Shoot. But those events don’t have the pressure and prestige of shooting for the championship. So Liko and her parents decided to register for the Women’s Open Championship division at the 2021 Vegas Shoot.
Archers in the Vegas Shoot’s championship divisions compete in a repurposed rodeo arena with fans and fellow archers looking on. The arena stands fill up during the final day of competition, and particularly when there are shoot-offs between competitors. To win Vegas, Liko had to shoot three perfect scores over three days. That involves hitting a 1.5-inch circle at 20 yards, 30 times in a row, each day. And she did just that in 2021. In 2022 Liko returned to the Vegas stage and once again shot a perfect score. But this time, she wasn’t alone. Two of the greats shot perfect scores, too, and a sudden-death shoot off would decide the winner.
Ahead of the shoot-off, Liko and her father went to the practice range to get ready.
“Me and my dad kept training, to just keep me as calm as possible,” says Liko, “because I was overwhelmed at first.”
But practice is just practice. It takes skill to stay calm on the main stage.
“I just shot my shot the best I could. Plus it was very dark, where I didn’t see much of the audience and I only saw the targets and the other archers. After I won, I was so happy. I hugged my parents, and they turned the lights back on. Then I noticed how big the audience was. There were like hundreds of people, so then I got nervous. I didn’t know there were that many people watching me.”
It might seem like “just doing your best” is an overly simplified approach to winning a major tournament and thousands in prize money. But it’s more than youthful optimism; it’s a tactic. Liko and her dad focus heavily on shooting a routine that they know works. If Liko focuses on the steps in that routine and nothing else, good scores will follow.
“To go to a tournament, it’s a grind,” Ryan says. “You take one arrow at a time, one hour at a time, one shot at a time. Whatever happens, happens at the end.”
Focusing on a process and not results is a proven mental management technique used by elite athletes in archery and beyond. But shutting out distractions and staying focused on technique is a learned skill.
“At home my dad would do anything to distract me. He would make weird noises when I’m at full draw or he’ll tell me, ‘You have to shoot a ten!’” Liko says. “He says, ‘Shut off everything that’s going on around you and just focus on your shot process. No matter what anyone says, just focus on you.’”
Liko has one more mental trick up her sleeve.
“If I shoot a nine or an eight [ring instead of a ten], then that shot’s over. I just have to continue moving forward and keep executing my shot the best I can,” she says. “If it’s not there, that’s my dad’s fault.”
By that Liko means that if she’s executing the way she’s supposed to and her arrows still aren’t in the middle, it must be an equipment issue — and her father is to blame because he tunes her bow. Scapegoating Ryan is partly a joke, but it’s also a smart approach that helps Liko focus only on what she can control.
The Pressure of Perfection
Liko’s mental approach is sound and obviously it works. But Liko has faced new challenges, some of which she’s still learning to overcome. After that second win in Vegas, there were so many people watching her at every tournament. And Liko could feel the weight of their expectations that she would, or should, continue dominating.
“If you win a tournament, the expectations start coming in. So it was normal for her to feel that way,” Ryan says. “We had to rethink our shooting and how we’re going to go through every tournament. It can get a little bit overwhelming, especially when there are people interviewing her.”
Dealing with presumptions and distractions are something all top archers need to overcome. The best ones stay focused on what they can control, which is what Liko is doing.
“I got expectations from people telling me I shot good. It made me feel like I have to always shoot well in order to get good feedback,” she says. “My dad helped me a lot. He told me that nothing matters, no expectations, nothing. Only your shots. What happens if you win or lose doesn’t matter. Just shoot your shot.”
The logistics of competition are also a grind. Traveling to domestic and international tournaments from Maui is expensive and time consuming; it’s a six-hour flight to the closest major tournament in San Diego. She’s also still relatively new to traveling and competing at major events. Then there’s the fact that Liko is a teenager who’s coached by her dad and spends nearly all her time with her parents. There’s bound to be some friction.
“I would think any parent who coaches in any sport finds it difficult,” says Ryan. “You’re with your kid 24 hours a day. So when does [coaching] turn on and turn off? Caring that much can get exhausting. It’s a never ending thing with a 16-year-old who’s coming into her own, who’s so rebellious against everything. You know, any good advice that I would give her? She would be like ‘Yeah, OK old man.’”
Last year, Liko shot at least 10 national and four international tournaments. She is one of just three women on the USA world team and World Cup team. With an intense tournament schedule from January to August, she and her family decided to switch from high school on Maui to online schooling.
“Usually I’ll just do one big tournament a year,” Liko says. “But [in 2023] I’ve been traveling to so many big tournaments. It’s been such a struggle with school and doing archery. My grades have been going up and down. It’s been such a struggle, but hopefully this school year will be better.”
A Teen’s World Debut
World Archery is the international governing body for target archery, which organizes the world championships, the Olympics, and their international series, the World Cup. The World Cup is made up of stages around the globe. Archers compete to win each stage and to qualify for the World Cup Final.
Liko so far has only competed in one World Cup stage, but she made it count. She shot her way into the gold medal match against Sara López, who has 25 World Cup golds and eight World Cup Final golds. I don’t recall there ever being an archer so dominant in my 20 years following the sport. This particular World Cup stage also happened to be in Colombia, which is López’s turf. If the home crowd cheering for a formidable opponent wasn’t enough of a challenge, it was also raining. Rain makes release aids and bow grips slippery, and it can also affect an arrow’s trajectory as it travels 50 meters to the target.
“I knew she wasn’t gonna give me any chances. She’s really, really good,” Liko says. “My dad told me to just stay calm and have fun with it. When I got to the stage, I got super nervous because everybody was cheering so loud. I stayed calm the best I could and I won the gold. I think it was luck to be honest, but it was a big one.”
Liko is being modest, of course, but that’s her nature. She has a fiery competitive side that she keeps buried most of the time and pours into her training. She told me she wants to do what no woman has done before and win the Open Championship at the Vegas Shoot. The open division allows men and women, though it’s typically all men, and pays out significantly more prize money than the women’s division ($58,000 vs. $10,000).
After her World Cup victory, Liko won a bronze at the World Youth Championship in Ireland and finished 17th at the World Championship. The day after our interview, Liko took the field for the first day of the USA Archery Target Nationals. She only shot three of 72 arrows before walking away. The wind was tricky and she chose not to fight through it. That gave her a score of 23 out of 720 possible points and put her well out of contention. She returned for the final day of competition anyway and shot a 682, the seventh best score on the field that day.
Her World Cup win qualified her to compete in the World Cup Final late last year. (A typical international tournament has about 64 competitors; the Final is just the top eight archers from the World Cup series.) Liko tied her competitor in the first match and they both shot perfect 10s during the tie breaker. Yet, her opponent’s arrow was closest to the center and advanced. It was a tough break, but not uncommon in elite competition.
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In January, she placed in the top five of the Women’s Pro division at the Lancaster Archery Classic. The 2024 Vegas Shoot ended Sunday, and I’m sure Liko wished she had shot better. Even though she only missed the 10 ring five times out of 90 arrows, it put her in 21st place at this year’s Vegas Shoot. That’s how tough it is to win at archery’s highest level: You have to be perfect.
Of course, no one can be perfect all the time. All the big names in archery have gone through periods of tremendous success and strings of disappointing tournaments. Great athletes like Liko need something to sustain them through the shooting lulls. For her it’s simple.
“I love just shooting my shot. It could be 3D, target, anything,” she says. “I just love shooting.”
That’s the passion Liko needs to achieve her ultimate goal: to become a professional archer who travels the world competing. Fortunately, she’s no stranger to the hard work such a dream requires. Liko’s challenges aren’t over, to be sure. But neither are her victories.
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