Serial winner Jyothi Surekha Vennam takes pride in consistency; targets elusive Asian Games gold

Jyothi Vennam of India during the Women's compound finals during the 2021 Hyundai World Archery Championships on September 25, 2021 in Yankton, South Dakota, USA. Dean Alberga/Handout/World Archery Federation via Getty Images

A day after she had won an individual gold medal at the Asian Championships, compound archer Jyothi Vennam still hadn't celebrated that achievement - the only top podium finish for India at that tournament. On Thursday, the day she claimed the continental title, she had only taken part in one celebration - for the birthday of a teammate. A day later on Friday in Dhaka, the 25-year-old was in the spectators stand, cheering for her teammates competing in the recurve section.

This medal wasn't an easy one. Over the past week, she'd been shooting through a severe cough and cold, the effects of which left her weak and made it hard to lift and aim her bow. She'd also have to battle through challenging conditions that changed wildly from gusty winds on qualification day to blistering hot during her individual matches and a tough field that included the former World Champion Kim Yun-hee of Korea in the semis. But Jyothi didn't want to speak too much about the challenges of winning the title. "That medal will take some time to sink in. Maybe I'll celebrate it once I return to India. In the meantime, there are other things and events to cheer for," she says from Dhaka.

An outsider might find Jyothi's willingness to step outside the limelight perplexing, especially since her event - compound archery - gets so little of it to begin with.

In April this year, just before she was supposed to catch a flight to compete in her first international tournament in over a year, Jyothi found herself marooned on a highway on the border of Delhi. Jyothi and the rest of India's compound archery team were left high and dry after the national federation barred them from boarding the flight to Guatemala for the World Cup Stage 1 after what would later turn out to be a false positive COVID-19 test returned by the team coach.

Although the team is one of the strongest in the world, and despite the fact that the recurve team had been vaccinated, the federation decided to pull the team for the tournament in order to placate the recurve team and avoid jeopardizing their Olympic preparation. Jyothi, instead of preparing for a competition where she was considered a medal favourite, was left to book a midnight flight home to Hyderabad.

The incident was yet another reminder that compound archery, which unlike recurve isn't a part of the Olympics - wasn't the highest in the federation's priority list. Jyothi could well be justified in nursing a grudge, but she doesn't like to dwell too much on that.

"I was a little upset at the start because I had prepared so hard for that competition in April. Because of the whole COVID pandemic, we hadn't taken part in any international competition for over a year. We were really looking forward to competing and winning. But at the last minute to be told we wouldn't go was disheartening. But at the same time we didn't have any option. We knew the situation wasn't in our control," she says.

So Jyothi says she went back to doing what she loved - shooting. "I've always loved to shoot. It's my favourite thing in the world. I'd been training for so many months without competition so I just went back to that," she says.

It's that devotion to practice that's helped her become probably India's most accomplished archer across compound and recurve disciplines. She has six medals at the World Championships - including three silver medals at the most recent edition in Yankton and has won gold at every Asian Championships since 2015.

Indeed, the individual gold in Dhaka was her second in that category, coming six years after the first in Bangkok.

For a person who has accomplished as much as she has, Jyothi wears her success lightly. The medals she says aren't her sole drive. "When I won my first gold at the Asian Championships, I was just 20 years old. At that time, I wasn't really expecting to win it. But after you win a few medals, there is this pressure to prove yourself the next time and show you still have that ability," she says.

It's that consistency she's most proud of. "I had a really good tournament at the World Championships (where she won silver medals in the individual, team and mixed team categories) but after that, I was looking to stay at that same level. I don't want to be an archer who has an excellent tournament and then loses that level in the next tournament. To have a high level of performance and then to maintain it, that's what gives me satisfaction," she says.

At the Asian Championships, she showed there's no fear of her form tailing away just yet. What's more, Jyothi feels she's shooting at her best-ever level. "When I compare myself to where I was in 2015 when I won my first Asian Gold, I'm a far superior shooter. Back then I shot a 682 (out of a possible 720) in qualification. This year I shot a 701. When you see that you are getting better and better each year, that gives you a lot more motivation," she says.

Even as she's continuing to improve, Jyothi, who has no shortage of medals hopes to add another few. "This medal has given me a lot of confidence for the competitions next year. My main target will be the Asian Games. I've never won a gold medal there. I didn't make the individual rounds in 2014 in my first games and in 2018 there wasn't any individual category in the compound bow (she won a silver in the mixed team event though). Next year, I hope I can win a gold in the team event or in the individual category, if they reintroduce that. I'll celebrate that medal for sure," she says.