Senior Sarah Chai has a long list of titles. She’s the outgoing CCSC senior class president, a Sigma Delta Tau sister, a future law student, and—by many accounts—one of the most caring people on campus. She’s also a national archery champion and now an Olympic hopeful.
“She’s always going to meetings, always away at archery, but she still finds time to text me every day,” said sophomore Aurora Gilbert, a close friend of Chai’s in SDT. “Whenever I’m with her, she’s so attentive to how I’m feeling, always asking about my life and how I am.”
Put a bow and arrow in Chai’s hands, though, and her attention becomes less warm and welcoming. Her concentration narrows, her demeanor intimidates, and for Chai, everyone in the room disappears.
Her focus has also brought her to the elite level of competition. Looking for a place on the London 2012 Summer Olympics team, Chai passed the first cut of trials in Texas last September. She also qualified for the trials four years ago, but did not survive the first round.
Now Chai will head to Chula Vista, Calif. for the second round on April 23, during which 16 competitors will be reduced to eight.
Her Olympic ambitions have not detracted from her dedication to collegiate competition. She and her recurve teammates took gold at last month’s Indoor National Championships for the second consecutive year. She ended the recent indoor season with the highest individual score in the country.
According to Columbia coach Derek Davis, her Olympic training regimen lines up perfectly with the demands of outdoor season.
“Sarah’s kind of like a real self-motivator. She doesn’t need a hovering coach. She knows what she’s looking for,” said Davis, who called her work ethic “top-notch.”
Archery didn’t begin as intensely for the Irvine, Calif. native, who fell in love with the sport at camp when she was 13.
“It was just fun. You know, when you see the arrow go into the target, especially when you get the gold, it’s a really, really, really cool feeling,” Chai said.
She stepped up her game in high school. In ninth grade, she began training with Seo Hyang-Soon, the 1984 Olympic individual gold medalist. That new level of competition instilled a single-minded tenacity within Chai.
“Archery has very much taught me that, with everything, it’s important to be focused on that one thing at a time,” Chai said. “When I’m shooting, I’m not thinking about the midterm I have coming up or what I’m going to eat for lunch. It’s just that one arrow. That one shot at a time.”
Chai’s work ethic in archery translates to other outlets of her life, especially her main priority: schoolwork. Her balancing act earned her a spot at Berkeley’s law school next year. She will likely return to her home state but is still waiting to hear from other programs.
Dedication is not her sole secret to success, though. Organization enables Chai’s attentive commitment. She blocks off time for each responsibility in her planner and fully immerses herself in each engagement.
“The fact that she’s busy and does so much makes it so that she puts her all into everything she does,” Gilbert said. “When she’s in a meeting with us, she’s not thinking about anything else. She’s dedicated to the sorority, and I’m sure that’s how it is with archery and student government.”
Chai’s student government work has been a part of her Columbia life since she was a freshman. Each year, she has planned her class winter formal despite not being available every weekend due to the archery season. Chai has worked with outgoing CCSC president Aki Terasaki since they were freshmen, when the two immediately bonded.
“She is always on top of everything that she needs to do, just having so many different things going on at once. And being a student-athlete and having to balance that as well, she always makes time for council,” Terasaki said.
Chai credits support from friends and family as the main contributor to her success.
“I think especially going through the trials process has shown me how much everyone is there for me and encouraged me,” Chai said.
Her teammates text her throughout her competitions, sending her encouraging messages when they can’t be there in person.
“We’re definitely sort of her cheering squad,” archery teammate senior Kate Cwynar said. “Everybody really loves Sarah. Of course, she’ll get to the very final rounds of the one-on-one competition and we’ll all be there: ‘Sarah Chai, you can do it! Pull through, strong shot!’”