He traveled 36 hours from his mud house in Asia to the glorious shores of the Pacific. He had never gone that far in his life –- never set foot in the United States he heard so much about. He was nervous, even scared. But he had a dream to catch. In fact, he had an entire nation's dream to catch.
And waiting in the warmth and sunshine of California was the one man who could help most.
Yeshey Dhendup, 21, competed in an archery tournament in San Diego last weekend. He didn't do too well, finishing 28th out of 32. But he only lifted the pride and anticipation of all those who know him back home and all of those who don’t.
Yeshey is from Bhutan, a tiny country of 665,000 in the mountains of the Himalayas. It's bordered by India, China, Bangladesh and Nepal. It's a heavily Buddhist nation that only held its first elections in December 2007. Most people think of Nepal as the country for towering peaks, like Mt. Everest, but Bhutan is every bit as mountainous and has Gangkhar Puensum, which at 24,840 feet is the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. (Mt. Everest is a little more than 4,000 feet higher.)
Bhutan is growing fast but it's still mostly rural. Yeshey lives in an adobe house with wood-frame construction. He has electricity and running water, but up at the snowline, as he says, "It's very cold."
The extreme weather never deters the Bhutanese from playing the sport they love most. Archery is usually practiced on flat land, but it's always been the tiny nation's most beloved sport. And although in the U.S. it's extremely individual -– just a shooter, a bow and a target -– in Bhutan it's surprisingly like football. There are often teams from different villages who stand 100 meters apart and shoot across a field. Distracting the other team is allowed and so is trash talk. The biggest matches turn into festivals. Where in the U.S. there is dead silence in the moments before an arrow is fired, in Bhutan there is raucous noise.
But when the Olympics arrive every four years, there's not much to cheer about in Bhutan.
As much as the nation loves its archery, Bhutan has never had an archer get out of Olympic qualifying. Even getting to Olympic qualifying isn't much of a feat, as the nation is granted two archery spots to every Summer Games.
The resources are so limited that few own their own bows. Yeshey was trained on a right-handed bow even though he's left-eye-dominant because the country didn't have any left-handed bows. He practices with the same bow used by the leading Bhutanese archer at the Beijing Games.
So an Olympic medal would truly be one of the most momentous occasions in the nation’s history -– bigger than any sports accomplishment could ever be in America.
"I'd be very famous," Yeshey says in his limited English. "They would feel very proud at home. It's important -– very important."
Which brings us to Brady Ellison.
He is, experts say, one of the best archers in American history. He is ranked No. 1 in the world at age 22 and while Yeshey is tentative, Ellison is dead-eye sure. He knew he was good at this when he shot a 300-pound bear -– at age 11. He was shooting grasshoppers with a toy bow while still in diapers.
The U.S. has always been strong at archery -– despite not medaling in the past two Games –- and Ellison fully expects to keep up that tradition. He told Vicki Michaelis of USA Today he got a tattoo of the Olympic rings on his forearm "so when I shoot, people can see it."
Yeshey Dhendup is the kind of archer Brady Ellison should eat for lunch. And, well, that's likely to happen. But on the way to London, the two have forged a friendship.
Ellison is the 22-year-old mentor. Yeshey is the archer's apprentice.
Over the weekend, thanks to travel funded by the Bhutanese Olympic Committee and an American documentary filmmaker, Yeshey got to train with the top archer in the world.
"Archery's a close-knit community," Ellison says. "Anyone will come over and help if you’re having problems. Even competitors from other countries will help you out."
But this is a step beyond that. Ellison is, in a very real way, helping an entire nation. Many Olympics fans don't even know where Bhutan is. A gold medal -– or any medal -– would bring the kind of international attention a growing democracy craves.
Out in San Diego, Ellison not only showed Yeshey some of the most advanced equipment in the sport but he also shared his coach, Kisik Lee, who has mentored nine out of the last 18 Olympic gold medalists and has introduced to the archery world a more scientific method -- one that Yeshey never had a chance to see up close.
"It was good," Ellison says. "Really neat to hear how his life revolves around archery. You could tell he was super thankful to be there. Just to see our culture -– what America is. You could tell he was taking in a lot."
Yeshey admits he had a bit of stage fright. There's still so much distance between the two -– literally and competitively. Out of a dozen shots in a typical round, Ellison will gain the maximum 10 points nearly every time. Yeshey is still trying to hit the mark half the time.
But the man from Bhutan is catching up. And Ellison plans to travel to Yeshey's home country to train not only him but his 12 teammates as well. That help will be passed along to the next generation, and future generations, until one day the Bhutanese flag is raised at an Olympics medal ceremony for the first time.
"Brady has taught me," Yeshey says, "how to act like a champion."
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