Toja Ellison has been practicing archery more than half of her life. She hit the range when she was 13 and hasn’t stopped since. Now, she applies her passion for archery and the valuable lessons it’s taught her into her daily life. Her passion has come into sharper focus with the birth of her son, Ty. Toja and Brady Ellison, Toja’s husband and fellow world-class archer, welcomed Ty in November. We talked with her about the roots of her archery career, where she is now, and how motherhood is shaping her next steps.
A360: What was your initial journey into archery like? Were you immediately drawn to the sport?
TE: I was 13 years old. I used to be a gymnast, but I got sick with a staph infection in my back that took away gymnastics. But then I met a girl whose entire family were archers, except her. Her dad wanted her to be an archer as well, and so she asked me to come with her to try it. It was love at first arrow.
A360: Were there some things you learned in gymnastics that carried over into archery?
TE: I was never a super successful gymnast, but I think it’s the body awareness. For those athletes to be on balance beams and all those things, you need body awareness. (With archery) it’s so much easier to learn and prepare your technique if someone tells you to keep your bow arm up. You need to know where your bow arm is, or different parts of your back. Gymnastics helped me be a better archer.
A360: Would you say that starting archery at a young age helped you reach the professional level you’re at today?
TE: Yes and no. I think what helped me reach the professional level is just hard work. I wanted it, and I was always willing to work hard. I was always the first one shooting and the last one to leave. It’s also the support that I had at home. My brother and I started at almost the same time, then my dad started as well. Otherwise, he would have been waiting for us while we shot. The relationship with Brady also opened up my opportunities. In Slovenia, it would be hard to be an archer professionally. I never planned to live in the USA. But maybe that was just meant to be. We do our best to make our relationship work. It’s just like archery, you have to work at it all the time. We want it to work and we want to be happy.
A360: How does archery benefit your daily life? What mental and physical benefits would you attribute to practicing archery?
TE: Archery is a reflection of the ups and downs, and it shows. It helps the mental aspect of my life. Whether it’s outside or indoor, you’re active. And enjoying archery with Brady makes me happy. Yes, it’s my job, but it also makes me happy.
A360: You said in a recent Instagram post that archery is one of the ways you grow as a person and learn life lessons. You also mentioned that archery is like a mirror, showing you your strengths and weaknesses. Can you elaborate?
TE: I grow through archery because it means so much to me. I want to be successful, so it’s like a mirror of my strengths and my weaknesses. The stuff that I still need to work on as a person, archery points out. Where I’m strong, archery rewards me. It helps me grow. Getting more nervous in stressful situations, this is something that archery can help you improve. You’ll always be nervous when you compete, but you can learn to handle the pressure. When I was in college, I was using my archery strengths. As a P.E. major I had to pass all these sports, and I was using my archery mental game in other sports. I was nervous for my citizenship interview, but I used the mental game there as well.
A360: Would you mind sharing a little bit about your journey to becoming a U.S. citizen and what that’s meant for you and your archery career?
TE: It was quite a long process. We got married, then I applied for my green card, then I wasn’t allowed to leave the country for three months. Then I got the green card, then two years later I reapplied for a green card, then another interview. Then I got a 10-year green card, then I applied for citizenship after three years. I was tested on my language: understanding, talking, writing, history and geography — you have to pass. If all other paperwork is OK, then they approve you. Then you have the ceremony. (Brady and I) will be married five years this month, so it took me five years. I’m living in this country paying taxes, and I feel like I’m not a foreigner anymore. With all the NFA, USA and 3D options (in the United States), you can make money at archery. Europe has a lot less. I would have needed to travel to the USA anyway if I lived in Slovenia.
A360: In another Instagram post, you shared a moment where you brought your son up to the podium with you and talked about him being the best training partner and that he teaches you how to focus on what’s important. What has training been like since becoming a new mother? Could you share how he helps you focus on what’s important?
TE: Since Ty, I practice during all his naps because I want to be a present mom when he’s awake. Sometimes that’s not possible, but he’s with us 24/7. We have a playpen between us. He squeaks and makes noises. The other day he was squeaking and talking the whole entire end, and you want to laugh so hard but you also need to focus. I was trying not to laugh. It makes me focus even more because my time is now limited. Before, I shot the whole day, 300 arrows a day. The time that he does sleep is the time I have, so I need to use it to the best of my ability. Sometimes I get in 60 arrows, but those arrows need to be amazing. I don’t have time to make bad shots.
He’s helped me shoot to the best of my ability. Not that I haven’t done that before, but I’m doing it better now. I don’t want him to look back and remember that Mom was always working. Sometimes I feel guilty, but Brady reminds me that this is our job and this is how we pay bills, this is how we support him. He doesn’t need daycare, we’re home. If I absolutely need more shooting, Brady will take him and play with him. Brady wants to be present just as much as I want to be present. Before the Olympics, it’s so hectic that we need to work, but Ty has both parents there for him.
A360: What advice would you give to other archers who are new mothers or are thinking about becoming a mother in the future?
TE: If you really want something, there’s always a way. Don’t stop following your heart and the stuff that you love, find time. There’s time during naps. “Sleep while the baby sleeps” is not such great advice. If you slept when they slept, you’d never get anything done. Nobody cares about a messy house; if you want to shoot, do it. Practice at night. Figure out lights above your target. Find a way to do the stuff that makes you happy. I used to shoot six hours a day and now I shoot two, but I do my best to really shoot. And that’s not just archery, that’s everything in general. You need to be happy in order to share happiness. You cannot share money if you don’t have it. You can’t share happiness if you don’t have it. If that’s archery, find a way to keep doing it.
A360: What advice would you give your son if he is also interested in archery?
TE: Ha! Phew — a lot of advice. The same advice I would give every single young archer that talks to me: You have to be happy with what you’re doing. Archery has to make you happy in order for archery to make you successful. It’s not just “I want the results.” You need to train every day. I ask young archers, “Did you have fun?” It makes it easier to overcome the hard stuff.
We’re hoping he finds something he’s passionate about. If that’s archery, that’s great! But if that’s playing an instrument, sports, or some other art, that’s great, too! It’s easier to go through life if you have something to focus on.
A360: What are the most important things you’ve learned during your career as an archer?
TE: Patience, hard work, the dedication to something. In general, the love for sports helps me build my love for everything else in my life. Being thankful. Through archery I learned to appreciate everything. Appreciating my family, everybody, it takes a village for somebody to succeed, it’s everybody behind you. I’ve learned to appreciate life because of archery.
Archery and Motherhood — Each Works in Tandem With the Other
Toja has mastered the art of taking what she’s learned from archery and applying it to everyday life situations. Practicing archery requires you to forget about what happened during the last end or tournament and focus on your next arrow. Whatever sport or creative outlet you’re passionate about, the notion of lettings things go and focusing your energy can certainly apply, and Toja hopes to pass those ideas on to Ty one day.
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