Ariel Gibilaro right on target

With a new technique and her same old attention to detail, Ariel Gibilaro is hoping to compete in the Olympics this summer. "When I was 5, I played soccer, and I wanted to be in the Olympics. But that really wasn’t a possibility then," she says. Courtesy of Teresa Iaconi

Accuracy had never been Ariel Gibilaro's problem.

From 70 meters away -- which is two-thirds the length of a football field -- the teen archer from North Branford, Conn., could hit a target the size of a silver dollar.

She took up the sport at age 10 and made the U.S. youth national team five years later. But in February of 2011, Gibilaro was no longer leading a tournament or even in contention for the top spot.

She was in 50th place nationally out of 52 archers.

"I got frustrated and upset," said Gibilaro, 17, reflecting on last year's National Indoor Championships, which were held in different regions, including her location of Andover, Mass. "But it's not like I didn't know what was going on. I knew."

Her coach, Teresa Iaconi, had completely changed Gibilaro's form one month prior to the Championships.

Iaconi had recently been certified to teach the National Training System (NTS), a technique the U.S. men have used to become the top-ranked team in the world.

"I talked to Ariel and explained that she could do even better with this new technique," Iaconi said. "But I also told her that in the short term, she could lose some ground."

Iaconi was right on both counts. Gibilaro took a step back while she learned, but she then leaped forward.

In September at College Station, Texas, she finished 14th out of 52 archers, which got her one step closer to qualifying for the 2012 Olympics in London.

Her next competition in that pursuit comes this week in Chula Vista, Calif., where she must finish in the top eight to remain alive. From there, on June 1-3, the archers go to Colorado Springs, Colo., where the top three females will win the right to represent the U.S.

"Making the Olympic team would mean a lot," said Gibilaro, a senior at North Branford (Conn.) who plans to attend Texas A&M in the fall. "When I was 5, I played soccer, and I wanted to be in the Olympics. But that really wasn't a possibility then."

The dream is now real. Gibilaro trains six days a week for an average of about three hours a day, firing more than 200 arrows per practice session.

She admits to being a perfectionist about her shooting -- "I'm very OCD," she said -- and it has taken that kind of attention to detail to complete her technique transformation.

Archery is a sport that demands precision, consistency and intense focus, but it was Gibilaro's willingness to change and her faith in her coach that has taken her this far.

"Some other kids might have quit and said, 'My scores are too low,'" Iaconi said of Gibilaro's decision to stay the course after her performance at Andover. "But Ariel said, 'Teresa, if you believe this is going to help me long-term, I will hang in there.'"

Gibilaro said the makeover was "quite tough" at first.

"I wasn't sure if I really wanted to change," she said. "But once I did, I didn't even remember my old way of shooting. Before, I just pulled the strings and anchored … and somehow I was good. Now, it's a lot more complex."

Iaconi is teaching a new method called the National Training System to several other talented archers (see sidebar). She believes positive results will continue to come if archers are patient and dedicated. She has just such an archer in Gibilaro, who has changed just about everything about her form, including:

-- Her stance, which had been square, is now open to her target.

-- Her posture, which was adjusted to flatten her back.

-- She has a new way of holding the bow, putting a certain amount of pressure on each finger.

-- She has a different way of aiming, releasing and finishing the shot.

-- And most dramatically, the way she lines her body to the target and the way she draws the bow back were changed.

"Imagine trying to do all that and being consistent in the wind," said Iaconi, noting that the Olympic archery competition will be held outdoors. "But the good thing is that [NTS] gives archers a process to follow."

It remains to be seen how Gibilaro does as she bids to qualify for the world's biggest sporting event. But one thing seems certain: She plans on shooting for a long, long time.

"It's been such a big part of my life the past seven years," Gibilaro said. "I am going to keep doing it until I can't lift a bow."