Echo Sport Replay: Hanlon on his days leading the charge for Irish archery

Echo Sport Replay: Hanlon on his days leading the charge for Irish archery

By Stephen Leonard

THE WORDS of his coach Hans Blum were still coursing through his mind as Keith Hanlon readied himself to face some of the top international archers on the European Grand Prix stage in the Turkish city of Antalya in early 1996.

Representing a country that was far removed from the traditional heavyweights of the sport, the Blessington man knew he was up against it, but his nerves were steadied by the soothing advice of his mentor - 'Let's just see how far we can go today.'

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Keith Hanlon competed at the highest level for his country and is, today, training a new generation of Irish archers from his home in Blessington Photo by Paddy Barrett

By the close of that tournament, the man who, only the year before, had buckled at the knees after reaching the match play stages of the World Championships for the first time, tore through a field that included Olympic silver medallist Magnus Petersson from Sweden, to finish among the top eight.

A few months later he would be flying out to Atlanta to compete for Ireland in the Olympic Games, shooting a new national 70m record and finishing 22nd out of 64 of the world's top recurve archers at the time.

It was an unforgettable period for Hanlon, a life-long honorary member of Greenhills Archery Club, who found himself pushing the boundaries for Ireland in a sport that had him hooked from the very first day he tried it.

“I started judo when I was about 11 or 12 and, like most sports I would have taken up, I had a flair for it I suppose” recalled Hanlon.

“I would have been on junior teams going away and I had aspirations of going to Olympic Games in judo.

“But the girl I was going out with said to me ‘There’s an archery club where I want to do the beginners course. Would you like to do it?’

“With me playing with sticks and bows and catapults when I was a kid, I said ‘Yeah I’ll give that a go.’ I went and did the course and the first evening when I shot my first arrow, it was like a light had lit up and I was like ‘This is just brilliant.’

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Keith Hanlon was a dominant figure in Irish archery, enjoying no shortage of National Open Championship success

“Within a year I had stopped judo completely because I knew this was what I wanted to do.

“I did the beginners course and every waking minute I’d be at it. I bought a cheap little thing out of Rory’s Fishing Tackle in Temple Bar and I was shooting at home.

“My father had a wooden greenhouse at the end of the garden and I’d be shooting down there.

“So I’d be getting up before I’d go to work, I’d shoot for half hour to an hour and I’d go to work, straight back and I’d take a cup of tea and I’d been standing outside with my tea and shooting when I’d come home. It was like an obsession. I just loved it.

“Shortly after that I got a decent bow and started to get a bit of tuition from Jim Conroy who was an Olympian himself and within just over a year I was on my first team.

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Blessington man, Keith Hanlon, a life-long honorary member of Greenhills Archery Club, was at the forefront of the sport in Ireland for more than 20 years, setting a string of national records, competing in 12 consecutive World Championships and representing Ireland at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta Photo by Paddy Barrett

“In 1989 we had a Five Nations tournament and the 1990 Europeans in Barcelona was my first major international shoot.

“It was a FITA tournament then and it was done over four distances, so you had 90, 70, 50 and 30 [metres]. You shoot 36 arrows at each distance and whoever has the best score wins.

“I probably had [a score of] just over 1100 at that stage and going into 1992, we needed over 1200 to go to the Olympics in Barcelona.

“There were three of us at the time who were there or thereabouts. Noel Lynch would have been the top archer in the country. He had gone to Seoul in ’88 and he would have probably just tipped over 1200. Then there was David O’Brien and myself who were knocking at the door all the time.

“We went out to The Europeans in Barcelona. It was a jaw-dropping experience, but what got me the most was when I looked at the leaderboard you had the three names for Ireland practically at the bottom.

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 Keith Hanlon and Dutch champion Tiny Reniers at the Face-to-Face Tournament in the Netherlands

“I’m looking at that and I’m going ‘That’s not right. I’m not having that anymore.’

“So I kept at it. Myself, Noel and David O’Brien were the top coming into ’92.

“Noel ended up going to Barcelona in ’92 and while he was over there, myself and David went to a shoot and both of us broke the 1200. All the pressure was off and we just shot.

“We started to push on after breaking the 1200. Like I said, I became almost obsessed with it. That’s all I wanted to do, all I wanted to talk about. It was the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last thing at night.

“The World Championships in ’93 was in Antalya in Turkey. That was my first Worlds. I had just missed out on the team in ’91.

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Keith Hanlon (Image: Paddy Barrett)

“Again there was myself, David and Noel and we had a lady who went with us, Jean Wilkinson.

“It was brilliant. This was where I started making friends in the archery community as such. It was a great experience and the same at the Europeans the year after and then the Worlds again after that.

“In around the ’91/’92 mark we had a seminar here with some of the top guys from America and Holland and they brought in a guy who was a physical trainer, Hans Blum.

“We got him to come back after the seminar and I took to his way of thinking and he became my coach for many years.

“Because he’s a physiologist, he understood what way the body should be and we worked really well together and that’s when I started really stepping up under his tutelage.

“A lot of the time that was over the phone. He became national coach eventually, but sometimes he would fly over and he’d work with us or we would go to him or we’d meet at tournaments.

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Keith Hanlon

“As I was training, if I was having an issue, I’d phone him up and I’d say ‘this is happening’ and he’d start talking me through the process.

“He’d be teaching you to teach yourself which is a lot of what I do when I’m coaching now.

“1995 was the World Championships in Jakarta in Indonesia. Myself, David and Noel were the ones who went.

“I finished 64th in the ranking and this was the first time we did a head-to-head match, so 64 plays Number One and you’d shoot 18 arrows.

“I was there, head up, not a problem. I got up, shot my first arrow and it landed in the 9.

“I looked into my scope, he shot and it landed on top of my arrow, didn’t break it, just landed right beside my arrow and my knees went. I just buckled. So I struggled to shoot the 18 arrows and I went out.

“I had all the confidence in the world shooting my first arrow, but seeing his arrow land, my knees went. It was the realisation that you’re here, this is it.

“Then early in 1996 there was a shoot in Antalya again. It was the European Grand Prix, but archers from all over the world would have come to it.

“Again I finished in 64th spot, but I went out the next morning in my head-to-head and I won against a guy from Sweden, Magnus Petersson who won a silver medal at the ’96 Olympics.

“Myself and Hans had previously been talking about how things will affect you, like when people come up and congratulate you about stuff, the mind shuts down and it goes ‘Oh well, I’ve done my job there now.’

“So I knew I’d won, and before anyone else had seen the score, I immediately turned around to Hans and I said ‘Get me out of here.’

“He literally took me outside the stadium, let me calm down, and then we said ‘Right, we’ve got work to do. Let’s go back in’

“So I went back in and went up against a guy from Belarus and put him out.

“His coach was there going ‘Do this, do that.’ Hans looked at me and goes ‘You’ve got this. He’s after giving him too much information.’

“In the third match I go up against a guy from Italy called Ilario di Buo and we’re two ends in and he picks up his bows and walks away.

“I’m looking at him going ‘What’s going on?’ because it’s three ends at this stage.

“The whistle blows and he’s like ‘Oh sh*t, I’ve still got to shoot’ and he comes back, so he’s under pressure.

“He comes back and he drills the target, ten, nine, nine. Fortunately I had had enough of a lead on him and I managed to beat him even though he came back strong.

“Now I’m into the top eight and I go up against a Korean called Kim Bo-ram and again there was all the psychology because they walk over and give me a badge and a sticker.

“Hans immediately cops on to this and says to me ‘Do you have any pins or stickers?’ I said ‘I’ve some in my bag’ and he says ‘Go and get one and give them to him.’

“Hans’ understanding of this was that you’re under some kind of obligation because they’ve given you something.

“So I go back and I’m speaking whatever little Korean I’ve learnt and I’m giving him this to show that I’m not ignorant of who you are.

“I went in and gave him a good run, but unfortunately he beat me so I finished in the top eight.

“At this stage I had no idea of whether we would get to the Olympics or not because 64 men and 64 women go.

“You gain most of your spots at the World Championships the year before and you also have to have your teams, so they’ll take 24 and then it dwindles down to the individual spots.

“But just before the Olympics, there were a couple of teams there whose country didn’t feel they were doing well enough, so they gave the spots back and I got what was called a pass-back. I got that because of where I had been placed in Jakarta.

“I was told only three days before the flights were going out to Atlanta.

“I got a phone call from Willie O’Brien who was President of Archery Ireland at the time. He said ‘Get down to the Olympic Council offices and tell them there’s a fax in there that’s sending you to the Games.’

“My head was in the clouds. I was like ‘What’s going on?’ But if I hadn’t gone in it would have been too late because it would have taken them too long to go down through the faxes.

“So I went in, told them and they went through it and I got the go-ahead. I went in a day later and picked up what kit I could get. The rest of it I got when I got out there. And yeah, I was on a plane to Atlanta.

“We had two weeks out there before the actual archery started, so we had a long time to settle.

“I got out there and Hans came in. When we started training, he had me shooting at short distance and no target for the whole day. Then he pushed me out to 70 metres and no target.

“It got to the stage where I had two or three days of this and I’m going ‘Let me get at a target.’ But I can see where he was coming from.

“What he had done was, he had starved me of actually scoring to the point where I was going ‘I want to do this. I need to put arrows into a target face.’

“That’s when we started getting on the target and then we were looking at the different wind aspects at the arena and where we had to be aiming.

“In Atlanta it was the first time that it went to 70 metres only. The FITA was gone and now you had 72 arrows at 70 metres so the maximum score would be 720.

“That week I shot a national record. I shot a 650 and I was ecstatic.

“Once you did the qualification round you went back into the head-to-heads another day or so later.

“The first guy I came up against was from Slovenia, Peter Koprivnikar. It was a tight enough match, but I managed to beat him.

“After that I came up against a Korean Jang Yong-Ho and after the first end we were almost even. After the second six there was only two points between us.

“I’m shooting really well, lobbing them in around the gold. All the time the wind is up and I’m aiming just a little bit high and left.

“But as I’m up there I get a gust, the bow clicked ready to shoot and I let it go and the arrow just pulled off and landed in the ‘6’ on the right at 5’o’clock. That was it. I lost by three points to him.

“I finished 22nd out of the 64 who competed and I had also shot a national record. I came away smiling. I was on cloud nine.

“I had got married in ’92 to a girl, Grace that I met about a month after I started archery. She’s also an archer. She had been in an accident when she was 18 and so she was in a wheelchair.

“She was at the Paralympics in Barcelona and she had qualified for Atlanta as well.

“I flew back with the team after Atlanta and I met my brother just as I came off the plane and he goes ‘She’s inside.’

“I was straight back into the airport, had a coffee with Grace and she got on the plane that I came home on to go out to Atlanta.

“The year after was the World Championships in Canada in ’97. I went out there and I shot really well.

“I did well in the qualifying and then in the first head-to-head I came up against Sergei Antonov from the Ukraine and I won, but again I was put out by a Korean (Kim Kyung-Ho) who went on to win the tournament.

“At that stage I was getting grant money from the Sports Council, but that in itself played a bit of a role because you’re now under pressure to keep the performance going.

“Hans used to say to me when we were going out to shoot ‘Ok let’s see how far we can go today.’ That was a thing between us, it was just let’s see how far we can go.

“But then, because there was funding involved, it was a case of ‘Now you have to do it’ and that changed the way the mind set goes. So that puts a lot of pressure on too.

“Unfortunately I didn’t make the cut for Sydney 2000.

“There was a continental qualifier for those Olympics in Mol in Belgium in 1999 where about 64 archers were playing for three spots and I ended up sixth or seventh.

“It was sheer disappointment especially given that I had already gone to Atlanta.

“In 1997 I became the first and only person from Ireland, as far as I’m aware, to break 1300. I did that in Belgium

“I was quite good in indoor. I won a big tournament in Germany in 1998. It was an open international and I won that. That was the first big one that I won.

“Up to about ’99 I would have worked with Hans and then he stood back, but then he came back again in 2003/2004 with the new blood that we had.

“In around 2010 I took on the role of National Coach, but you’re then getting into the politics of it all and you’re always going to have ups and downs with that.

“I took over as shooting coach, but there was such turmoil going on within the association, I just stood up and said ‘Look I can’t handle this, I’m out of it.’

“My last international tournament was the World Championships in Denmark in 2017.

“I suppose it had got to the stage where I lost the passion for the actual competition. In a way, I’d done it all.

“I’m shooting 48 pounds for a period of about 25 years, so that’s a lot of weight on the body.

“And if I’m not performing the way I’m used to performing I get upset with myself, so I said ‘Ok I’ve had enough.’

“I know I’ve done a lot in my career and I know I’m good at what I do. I’ve had a good life with it and now I’m passing it back by way of coaching some young archers out here in Blessington where I have my shop Archery Supplies Ireland (ASI).

“I’ve already brought a couple of people from club to international level where they’ve performed really well.

“I brought two ladies on to international level. Maeve Reidy had the record of 1286 for ladies and the other girl who I brought through is Sarah Dunne who would have been a member of Greenhills at one stage. She got out to a couple of internationals and did quite well.

“A young man from Greenhills, who I took under my wing a few years back was Dan Malone. He now holds records as a Cadet and Junior. But again, different things happened and life took over.

“I’m coaching a guy from Cavan at the moment, Maxwell O’Keeffe, and he’s off to the Europeans on Saturday so he’s doing pretty well at the moment.

“And then I’ve a young girl, Roisin Mooney, who came out two years ago. She smashed the national record for 70 metres and she was shooting well. But, come the end of that year, she ended up with an injury and had to take it easy. We were only getting back into things and Covid hit.

“I still get out and I do what’s called field shooting which is a different format. You’re going out into a forest and you’re shooting at ups and downs, you’re not given the distance and you have to work it out yourself. It’s fantastic.

“I’ve shot in two World Championships in field shooting as well and in 2016 we had the World Championships here in Kilruddery.

“I’m a life-long honorary member of Greenhills Archers.

“They’ve had their ups and downs with numbers, I mean all clubs around the country have been devastated because of Covid, but there’s an innovative crew there in Greenhills and they work really hard to try and keep things going.

“It’s a great sport and I’ve had a good career. Talk about travelling the world, I’m well travelled and it’s all archery-related.

“I was 21 when I started out in it in 1988 and since then I’ve done 12 World Championships in a row and in the Europeans over the years I’ve done relatively well.

“I was the first man in Ireland to shoot a 1300 with a recurve bow and first to shoot a 1300 with a compound.

“I still hold all the national records for the Recurve bow, indoor and outdoor, except for the 50m record and I’ve gone to an Olympics. It was a lot of hard work, but I loved it and everything I wanted to achieve I’ve done.”

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