In 2021, Chile had for the first time an athlete participating in archery in a Paralympic Games. That athlete is Mariana Zuñiga, who made her debut at the age of 19, winning the silver medal at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Zúñiga’s silver medal was also the first medal won by an archer from the Americas in the compound open women’s category. It was a great achievement not only for her country, but also for the continent and she remembers it as “the best experience of my life in general, not only in sports.”
On the road to Tokyo 2020
Zuñiga won his ticket to the Paralympic Games at the continental qualifier during the 2021 Pan American and Parapan American Championships in Monterrey. “I remember that tournament in Mexico as one of the best tournaments. I enjoyed it very much. In terms of achievements, a lot was also achieved” mentioned Zuñiga. In that competition Mariana won the Parapan American title in compound open women, won the bronze medal in mixed teams along with Javier Basualto, broke two Pan American records and won her ticket to the Paralympic Games in Tokyo. “It was a very profitable tournament, but I have always been a person who takes a long time to process things and hard news.”
“When I won the medal (in Monterrey) they were all excited, crying, hugging and very happy and I was in shock. I looked at them and said ‘but why are they crying’. I didn’t know how to react,” said Zuñiga. It took more than two weeks for her to realize the immense accomplishment she had made. “I start to have all this bombardment of questions, then I said of course, I qualified for the Games, and now what do I do?”.
What Zuñiga did was to keep practicing. Mariana’s work plan included participating in competitions with able body archers and in August, two weeks before the start of the Paralympic Games, she and the Chilean table tennis athletes went to a training camp in the Japanese city of Mitaka.
These two weeks allowed Zuñiga to get used to the 13-hour time difference and the food that was very different from what she was used to eating. “At first it was difficult. I remember waking up at about 4 a.m. and having a hard time falling back asleep.”
On the last day of the training camp, before going to the Olympic Village, they had an official tour of the city hall. “The Japanese didn’t know us. We were complete strangers to them. But the day we did the tour and passed by the municipality, there were many many people with Chilean flags shouting ChiChiChi, lelele and with a giant banner with my face and my name saying good luck Mariana.” Several children wrote letters and drew pictures for the athletes. “They drew me some magnificent bows that even I couldn’t draw.”
The Games begin
The training camp was over, and now it was time to focus on the real competition. On the day of the qualifications, Zuñiga shot 671 points, three points more than she had done in the Championships in Monterrey. “The day of the competition a lot of things changed outside and inside me, and even though I had made my personal record in international competitions, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my performance.” She seeded 14th out of 24 archers.
Mariana talked to her coach about it but what changed her mind was a comment from her powerlifting teammate. “She said to me ‘do you size up where you are now? Do you know how many people would kill you to be here?’ And that’s when I give everything I have for the next day.”
The first round of matches did not look easy for Zuñiga, she faced Rio 2016 Paralympic champion Zhou Jiamin of China. “There I said it’s going to be tough competition but we’re going to try.” Zuñiga won that first match 144-137.
The next day all the remaining matches were played until the medal finals. In the second round she faced Öznur Cüre of Turkey and won 143-140.
In the quarterfinals she faced again a Chinese, Lin Yueshan. Zuñiga started winning the match in the first three ends but in the fourth one they were tied on points and in the fifth end both archers had a total of 138 points. A shoot off arrow defined the match. “That shoot off I remember as an experience of connection between me and the bow and I gave myself to the moment, I trusted in my process, I trusted that the bow was also going to do its job. And I won that shoot off and moved on to the next round.”
Four archers were left at that time. Zuñiga’s next opponent was Stepanida Artakhinova of the Russian Paralympic Committee. Zuñiga started behind in all the ends, except for the last one. In the fifth end she shot a perfect and managed to stay one point up on the scoreboard, 142-141. Mariana Zuñiga would go on to the final for the gold medal.
“I didn’t feel it at that moment, but at that stage we had been competing for 4-5 hours in the heat, in the wind. You don’t feel it because your adrenaline is so high, your body is in charge of keeping you alive at all costs.”
The gold final was against Phoebe Paterson Pine of Great Britain. They started the first two ends tied, but in the end Paterson Pine took the gold by a one-point difference 134-133.
The first medal for Chile in the Paralympic Games
“I remember that whole process with a lot of joy and also a lot of emotion because in that whole process I was never alone despite the fact that the entire technical team and my family were miles away. I only traveled with one coach,” recalls Mariana. “They let me know through a video that they were there with me, supporting me. They cared that I got there well, that I enjoyed it, that it was a nice experience and that they were there with me shooting all the arrows.”
Moments before the awards ceremony, Mariana had the opportunity to talk to her mom on the cell phone of the president of the Chilean Paralympic Committee. “He had her number, he called her and I heard her on the back of the phone. Of course, she thought it was the president who was going to answer. I say, ‘Mom?’ and my mom starts to cry. My whole family was gathered there. It was very emotional to know that my family was there connected at the moment and they were all excited celebrating.”
A small inconvenience happened during the ceremony, both Zuñiga and her coach had forgotten to pack the official uniform in case of awards. “I didn’t think I was going to make it to the podium and get a medal. We had award uniforms but I didn’t remember to pack it, it didn’t cross my mind and I didn’t think I was going to make it that far.” They tried to get a uniform through the Chilean officials who were on site, but to no success. “No one was expecting that medal to come. It was my turn to get on the podium with the uniform I had.”
The podium in the women’s open compound category in Tokyo was first place Phoebe Paterson Pine of Great Britain, second place Mariana Zuñiga of Chile and third place Maria Andrea Virgilio of Italy. “I really wanted to cry. I remember them handing me my medal, I took it in my hands, I hung it up, I looked at it and I thought to myself ‘what did I just do’, like not believing I had that medal in my hands.”
After seeing the Chilean flag waving in the wind and answering several questions from the press, Mariana still had that restrained emotion. “I met with the committee’s doctor, who had been accompanying me in the training camp, in the trip, in everything and I told him ‘I feel like crying’, he said ‘but cry’. There he hugged me and I started to cry. He cried with me. It was a very emotional moment.
Achievements that inspire
Mariana Zuñiga’s achievement inspired more people to practice archery. “Both for me and for the federation in general, many things changed. I believe that as Paralympic athletes we have the responsibility to show that we exist, that we are people just like everyone else and that we can achieve great things. Now in archery we are 10 people who are practicing in the para archery team. Before that we were two or three people.” And the most rewarding thing for her is motivating more people without knowing it. “Some teammates have told me, ‘Mariana, thank you very much because when you were there competing I saw you and one day I said ‘I want to compete with that girl.’ It’s very gratifying to have them tell me about that kind of experience.”
For this growth to continue, not only in her country, but also in the continent, it is necessary to have more people interested and willing to work. “I believe that the fundamental thing is to have a support team that is trained, that can cover the needs of the athlete. It is often said that para-archery is no different from ablebody-archery and I totally agree with that because the rules are the same, but small adaptations are needed.
“I know there is a financing issue behind, but it would be important that the respective countries also trust in the athletes and hopefully resources are allocated so that they can go out with a complete team and that they can be at the highest level. I have seen for example in Brazil that there are 30 people between psychologists, massage therapists, technicians of everything”.
It is also important to break down the barriers between para and able body athletes. “Many times I have heard that some coaches get scared and don’t know how to work with Paralympic athletes. I feel that there shouldn’t be such a big difference.”
There are very few para-archery competitions in the continent. This year there is only one in November, the Parapan American championship. “Personally, I would like there to be more competition and it would facilitate many things in the preparation. It would help to strengthen technical processes and also psychological processes that cannot be worked on in control situations or in the training itself, because the pressure, the elements from outside, all those kinds of things change and one cannot foresee them.”
Zuñiga’s next goal is to participate in the South American Games in Asunción at the beginning of October with the conventional archers and then participate in the Parapan American Championships in November and qualify for the Santiago 2023 Games. And hopefully with the Santiago 2023 Games, to be able to qualify for the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games.