Emotion flooded from the German recurve women’s team following its early-round victory over Mexico at the ’s-Hertogenbosch 2019 Hyundai World Archery Championships, and Michelle Kroppen was eager to join them.
She just needed to know why they were celebrating.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” Kroppen recalled of her teammates jumping and crying after securing a full women’s quota for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. “Everyone was talking about the quota places, and I was just shooting.”
Slotted as the second archer between veterans Elena Richter and Olympic silver medallist Lisa Unruh, Kroppen could shoot without concerning herself with the implications of her performance.
Yet while her youthful innocence did little to impede her score – the 24-year-old claimed the top finish among the German women individually at the worlds – it spoke to her good fortune since joining the senior national team in 2017.
The trio medalled at least once each year they were together, with Kroppen serving as the third dependable archer Germany had been desperately seeking for years.
But a vacancy has opened once again. Richter unexpectedly announced her retirement in August after the Olympics were postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, leaving a hole in the team’s line-up and without an obvious replacement.
After propelling Germany to secure its first team quota for the Olympics since Athens 2004, a greater burden will naturally fall on Kroppen’s shoulders as the nation once again looks for a third reliable archer to complement its roster.
“It’s cool to be one of the big names in Germany, but it also means that you have to be good all the time,” Kroppen said. “If you don’t perform well in competition, everyone starts asking questions. For now, I’m just trying to focus on my training and my technique, and I’ll see the results when the time comes.”
Competing alongside Richter and Unruh proved invaluable for Kroppen, who said she didn’t fully come into her own as an archer until joining the senior team at the age of 20.
The two veterans were a calming influence who helped Kroppen reach her full potential, she said.
Richter, shooting first in the three-archer team rotation, would set the tone and pass along any useful information or advice, such as adjusting to wind patterns, while Unruh was an unfailing presence behind her, always delivering 10s when the trio needed it the most.
With Richter gone, Kroppen will no longer have the luxury of always deferring to her older, more experienced teammates. She has proved more than capable in terms of her skill and technique, rising to the number 10 spot in the world ranking – the only German and European who currently sits in that elite group.
Now it’s time for her to be more assertive in her approach as well.
“I was like a little sheep in between these big sheeps,” Kroppen said. “Now I feel strong enough to also shoot in the first position or the third position, and we can get a new little sheep, and I can help them to keep calm in every competition – even at the Olympics.”
Unambiguous talk of the Games is a development in its own right for Kroppen, who had targeted 2024 for her Olympic debut prior to helping Germany secure those three quota spots in the Netherlands.
Qualifying as a team accelerated her own personal timeline, only for the calendar to get pushed back indefinitely due to the pandemic – stripping away her ability to train in the process.
Even for an athlete whose motto is ‘patience is power’, the hiatus has been difficult for Kroppen to reconcile. Like her teammate Richter and many other archers across the globe, she has seen a dip in motivation due to all of the uncertainty surrounding the Games and whether they will take place next summer.
“Archery means so much to me,” Kroppen said. “If I’m not fine with my archery, I’m not complete. Everything is wrong. I don’t have fun watching movies, I don’t go out, I don’t meet up with friends. Everything is different.”
The silver medallist at the Salt Lake City stage of the 2018 Hyundai Archery World Cup said she has taken solace in knowing that an extra year of training means an extra year for her to get even better when the Olympics eventually arrive.
Conversations with her sports psychologist have concentrated on framing the Olympics as a broader goal unattached to a specific city or year.
“Corona is a big crisis, but every crisis has a silver lining,” she said. “That’s how you have to look at things. If I get a chance to be a better archer for one more year, maybe I’ll be that much better when it’s time to compete and try to win a medal.”
Her rapid ascension from a competent junior to one of the best senior archers in the world has Kroppen’s teammates and coaches excited about just how good she can be.
“Michelle made a big jump in her performance in her second year on the senior team,” said teammate Unruh. “At the beginning of her senior career, she was doubtful of her performance and not as mentally strong. But she worked very hard on herself and became a mentally strong archer. I trust her a lot.”
Kroppen credits her move to Berlin and working with the senior team coaches there for her progress. When she first arrived, she said, she tried to model her technique after Lisa’s, before eventually discarding her desire to emulate others and instead focus on what works best for her.
It was a change for the better. Her improvement has gone a long way toward establishing Germany as one of the biggest contenders in the world heading into Tokyo.
“Michelle has a very strong volition,” German coach Oliver Haidn said. “She can always shoot a 10. When she feels good, she can focus on the things that have to be done in the moment.”
For now, Kroppen’s focus is pointed toward maintaining her motivation as the calendar slowly marches closer and closer towards the Games that were postponed until this summer.
Haidn said the team for Tokyo won’t be finalised until June. There’s still plenty of work to be done before then and Kroppen is keeping things in perspective.
“The dream is not to go to Tokyo,” she said, sounding as if it was as much of a reminder to herself. “The dream is to go to the Olympics. That’s what I’m fighting for.”