Featured Athlete: Ariel Gibilaro


By Perry Smith
Photo credit By Teresa Laconi

There’s not always a rhyme or a reason for how people decide their passion. Sometimes, explaining success is a little bit easier.

Growing up in North Branford, Conn., Ariel Gibilaro, 19, fell in love with archery at a young age, and her drive and determination have her on pace to reach her goal, which is a spot on the U.S. Archery Team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Growing up, Gibilaro, who’s currently ranked No. 7 in the nation, played team sports, such as soccer, and cross country as well. But there was an aspect of archery she immediately loved. “I think it was just the fact that I could do it on my own,” she said. “The sport is up to me. I don’t really have to rely on anyone else, like softball or basketball, for example.”

In April 2005, she began taking archery classes, and by November of that year, she had already competed in her first indoor tournament. “I was 10 when I started shooting,” Gibilaro said. “There wasn’t a high school program — when I first began shooting. I started in a Parks and Recreation program.” And a passion was born.

Gibilaro didn’t even have her own bow and arrow when she started. She borrowed equipment before she graduated to the intermediate class, where some of the kids had their own bows.  Gibilaro’s former coach, Teresa Iaconi, saw the talent and potential at an early age. “I was watching her shoot, and I thought, ‘This kid’s got some potential,’” Iaconi said.

No one in her family had much experience with the sport of archery, but that soon changed.  Looking to encourage their daughter’s newfound passion, Gibilaro’s parents took coaching certification classes and encouraged her at every opportunity. It’s become a family event.

Her mother, Deborah Gibilaro, now coaches Yale’s archery club team, and Ariel’s younger sister enjoys archery as well.

By the time Ariel Gibilaro was in high school, she was shooting hundreds of arrows daily at the local Hall’s Arrow archery range five to six days a week. Gibilaro was driven by success, already accomplishing some of the goals she had set for herself, achieving national recognition as a teenager. But she still has a few goals she’d like to achieve. “I’ve always dreamed of training to make the Olympic team,” she said. “Making the top 16 for the Olympic trials in 2011 was very beneficial in showing me that I could make an Olympic team,” she said, talking about how coming close spurred that drive in her.

Along the way, she became so determined that despite having reached the highest level of competition with the methods she was using, she should probably adopt the technique used by the national team to be successful at that level. She was shooting hundreds of arrows each day learning a new method, unique to Coach KiSik Lee, known as the National Training System. There’s a challenge that comes with changing the muscle memory an athlete uses to shoot hundreds of arrows each day — adjustments that have to be overcome.  The experience was a perfect example of Gibilaro’s determination, her coach said.

Gibilaro’s first competitions after the switch resulted in her student going from a consistent top-five finish in competitions to finishing 50th at one event. Gibilaro was at first disheartened, but she responded, true to form, Iaconi said.

“I always say that those athletes (at the Olympic level) need three qualities: determination, tremendous work ethic and they have to love the sport,” Iaconi said. ”If they have those three things, they’ll go infinitely farther than the natural athlete, she said, stressing the importance of the mental component of archery. “Without that passion for the sport and that fire in the belly that she’s got, they’re not going to get very far,” she said.

After graduating from North Branford High School and practicing in the Junior OIympic Archery Development (JOAD) team program, she received a sought-after invitation. She could either go off to college, or continue to reach for the goals she had set for herself, the highest possible achievement in her sport: making the U.S. National Archery Team.  Gibilaro moved out to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California last August after graduating from high school. She takes classes online working toward her college degree.

“(My parents, Iaconi and I) back then figured that the best opportunity I could take to make the Olympic team was to come out to the Training Center and train full time. “Archery is something that I love to do, so it’s hard for me to think of it as a job,” Gibilaro said. “But essentially, that’s what it is, I’m shooting six hours a day. However, she also has fun living and training with the other archers at the Training Center who are all around her age. “We’re all at the similar stage in our lives,” Gibilaro said. “We’re all a big family, but we’re all very competitive.” It’s a unique opportunity to combine her passion with a chance to achieve her Olympic dreams.

“You definitely have to be able to be self-motivated, motivated to work hard for those goals you want to reach,” Gibilaro said, explaining what drives her, “and to work hard until you reach them.”