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Right on target
Linda Stephens shooting for Olympic glory
W 041212 GSU ARCHERY 01
Wearing a Junior Olympic Archery Development ring, Linda Stephens, 20, of Ludowici practices with the Georgia Southern University Archery team. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

As she slowly, confidently stretches tight a chord on her competition-style recurve bow — which seems more an extension of her body than inanimate object — and stands poised to fire, it is difficult to know for sure the thoughts that pass through Linda Stephens’ mind. 
    While on a grass field, tucked just off of the road at Georgia Southern University’s Recreation Activity Center, and facing a multi-colored target more than 50 meters away, she is almost certainly calculating wind speed and trying to determine the perfect angle for release.
    But somewhere, in the back of Stephens’ mind, another thought must linger — an idea that persists and factors into every move, and every shot that she makes.
    Somewhere, the Georgia Southern junior archer has to remember why she’s taking this shot to begin with — why she dedicates hours each week to honing her craft.
    There is no doubt that Stephens is thinking about more than just the task at hand.
    She is thinking about Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
    She is thinking about the 2016 Olympic Games.
    While reaching the pinnacle of achievement in any particular sport is a pipe dream for most, for Stephens — a rising star in the archery world — the goal is just one skillful performance away from being realized.
    The Georgia Southern club archer, who participates individually in state and national competitions throughout the year, hopes to do what few others will by joining the U.S. Olympic Archery Team.
    Stephens can do so by performing well in a three-day qualifying tournament before the 2016 games.
    “Becoming a member of the United States Olympic Archery Team would be my greatest life achievement to date. No award or trophy I’ve won before would compare,” she said. “The opportunity to represent the United States in such an esteemed tradition would be the crowning moment of my archery career. There is nothing higher, and nothing more competitive, than the Olympics.
    “(The Olympics) is far as I can possibly go, and that’s where I want to take it. I plan to get there some day, some way,” she continued. “I feel that in three more years, I will be ready and able to make the team.”
    Anyone noticing Stephens’ recent competition results would have little reason to argue against her chances.
    During the past year, she has placed fourth, fifth and seventh in national competitions, defeated challengers in several regional and state events and been named a collegiate All-American.
    She also competes with the Georgia Southern Archery Club Team and a Junior Olympic Archery Development team.
    Stephens, who has practiced as an archer for six years, says she is committed to improving all that she can.
    She practices five to seven days each week, about five hours per day, at Georgia Southern, her home in Long County or with an archery coach near Atlanta, she said.
    “I always want to get better,” Stephens said. “I know I have a lot of work left to do, but I love it; and that’s why I keep going.”
    “Success is very complex in this sport. In order to be successful, I have to be physically tough. You have to train hard to perform well, and that requires a dedication foreign to most,” she said.  “You also have to be mentally tough.”
    Stephens’ coach, Rodney Estrada, has known the budding archer for several years.
    Estrada thinks Stephens has the talent to compete at the highest level.
    “I think (Stephens) has an incredible command of the sport, is easy to work with and is highly coachable. She has drive, motivation and a willingness to put in the hard work it takes to make it to the next level,” Estrada said. “Her chances to make the 2016 team are very good. She has a strong foundation and can only improve from here.”
    Estrada said Stephens’ greatest gifts are those that cannot be measured.
    “She is highly, personally self-motivated.  Her willingness to try new form issues and equipment to improve her game allows her a flexibility to grow and learn,” he said. “Linda is highly intelligent and extremely driven towards success. Her personal self-drive motivates her to try harder, work differently and break through training plateaus.”
    That relentless effort has continued to pay dividends for Stephens, who on a grass field at Georgia Southern fires shot after shot on target, stoic in her stance and release, every Thursday. 
    She said she will continue working meticulously and competing regularly as she prepares for the Olympic trials in 2016.
    And she plans on having a good time doing it.
    “Every second of my time in and around the archery field is a moment for discovery and learning,” Stephens said. “No matter what, I have to stay positive and live in the present.
    “I love this sport. I live for the competition. It takes a lot out of me, but it always puts a lot more in.”
   
    Jeff Harrison may be reached at (912) 489-9454.

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