Cowles, 16, will be one of two American archers heading to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in October to compete in the Youth Olympic Games, an international, multi-sport event organized by the International Olympic Committee.
Trenton Cowles stumbled upon his passion in the most Generation Z way possible.
He recognized his potential while playing video games.
Then a fifth-grader, Cowles wasn’t very successful at the Nintendo Wii’s Sports Resort virtual activities such as basketball, canoeing, cycling and ping-pong, among others. But he excelled in the video game’s archery discipline, so he decided to make a bow out a bungee cord and a stick he found on a family trip to Yellowstone National Park and take some shots back home at Woodley Archery Range in Los Angeles.
“I was terrible,” Cowles admits. “I was surprised. This is not like the Wii at all.”
Now 16, Cowles will be one of two American archers heading to Buenos Aires, Argentina, in October to compete in the Youth Olympic Games, an international, multi-sport event organized by the International Olympic Committee. Over 200 countries and 3,600 athletes competed in Singapore at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games, which has an age limit for the athletes between 14 and 18 years old.
“I’m extremely excited,” Cowles says. “Making it to the YOG was my main goal for this year.”
Yet how Cowles earned a spot at the international competition is steeped in an old-school approach. Despite his initial struggles, Cowles was still intrigued by archery, an interest that puzzled his mother Sandra Cowles.
“I was like, ‘Whatever,’ ” Sandra Cowles recalls. “I couldn’t understand how he could play the Wii, and say, ‘I can do this.’ ”
But her son’s start was cheap and safe; Woodley offered a free, three-month program to instill the basics of the sport. Cowles slowly improved, and he was invited to take some advanced classes at the nearby Easton Archery Center.
That, however, required a commitment, which was a challenge for Sandra and her husband Matt. With five children, the parents put the ball — or arrow, in this case — in Trenton’s hands.
“‘If you can get grandpa and grandma on board, then you can do it,’” Sandra recalls telling her son.
Sandra’s parents, Antonio and Julia Fonseca obliged.
Sandra then realized how serious her son was when he gave up baseball, soccer and even the guitar.
“He didn’t have time for anything else,” she says.
At 12, he competed in an indoor tournament and shot a personal best.
“But it wasn’t enough to get me on top,” Cowles says.
That result tapped the competitiveness in him.
"I had the drive to become No. 1,” he says.
Antonio, mostly shuttled Cowles to practices at a great sacrifice, driving over 100 miles daily. Cowles also received his first real bow as a gift from his grandfather.
“I can’t even express how much I appreciate him,” Cowles says. “He’s my role model.”
At Easton, Cowles worked closely with coach Rene Paguia on overhauling his form. Cowles had poor posture, bending too far forward and dipping his head.
“His first form was like from the Medieval times,” Paguia says. “But I took working with him as a challenge.”
The changes didn’t come quickly or naturally, but Cowles persisted. If Paguia told him to shoot 200 arrows a day, Cowles would shoot 300. If Paguia told him to do 100 push-ups a day, Cowles would do 250.
“He really listens, and he loves the sport,” Paguia says. “It’s a pleasure to coach a kid like him.”
After about six months, Cowles’ improved form started to show in the results. He also logged lots of practice — at least three hours a day.
Cowles' daily routine doesn’t change: Attend school, come home and eat a snack, then ask for a ride to the range, which is a 10 to 20-minute drive, depending on traffic. If Sandra cannot take him, Cowles calls one of his grandparents or a friend.
In rare instances, if he can’t get a ride to the range, he practices in his backyard.
“He’s taken full responsibility,” Sandra says. “He’s all in.”
Cowles, a lefty, says he only takes a day off after tournaments, to rest his left hand.
Cowles started to win events and advance to national and then international competitions. Last year, he was was the top-ranked American at his age and event. In February, at the World Archery Indoor Championships, Cowles was a member of a team that won a bronze medal.
Cowles is proud of his motivation and dedication to the sport.
“It’s a repetition sport,” he says. “You have to be able to do it every time.”
Before every event, Cowles sets a goal. The goal before the U.S. Olympic Committee’s team trials in June was perhaps his boldest: To earn the lone men's spot for the Youth Olympic Games.
Sandra recalls the exchange with her son.
Sandra: “Trenton, have a backup plan.”
Trenton: “Mom, I’m going to get that spot.”
Cowles swept the event, winning the qualification round and five of seven matches to secure the men’s spot. Catalina GNoriega was the women’s trials winner and will join Cowles in Buenos Aires.
Earlier this month, Cowles got a unique opportunity. He returned to his family’s Colombia roots to compete in the Pan American Games in Medellin. He arrived early, so he could acclimate to the weather and visit with relatives.
“It’s been special to see family,” Cowles says. “For them to see me shoot.”
And Cowles delivered. He entered as the seventh seed and scored a 7-1 upset of the second seed from Paraguay in the quarterfinals. He then upset the third seed from Canada 6-4 in the semifinal before losing 10-8 in the final to the top seed from Mexico.
Cowles earned a silver medal in the recurve cadet division. He also won gold medals in the mixed and team events.
“He was pretty stoked,” Sandra says of her son’s success in Colombia. “Trenton showed off his shooting in front of family.”
Surely that result will give him confidence heading toward the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires and beyond.
“This is a step toward my ultimate goal of competing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 2024 Paris Olympics and 2028 Los Angeles Olympics,” Cowles said before the Pan American Games.
Cowles couldn’t mask his excitement at the prospect of competing at the Los Angeles Olympics.
"That would be amazing,” Cowles says. “All my friends and family can watch me shooting at the most prestigious event there is.”
Meanwhile, Sandra still can’t wrap her mind around her son’s sporting success.
“It’s amazing,” she says of the prospect of him becoming an Olympian. “You hear about that, but I’ve never met anyone or talked to anyone (who went to the Olympics). But it’s like, ‘That’s going to be my kid one day.’ ”
Besides, who can blame a Gen Zer for dreaming big?
The Youth Olympic Games begin October 6 on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA