"I never thought of myself as athletic, but I was actually really good at everything," Geena Davis tells PEOPLE
Geena Davis has played several adventurous, physically demanding roles over the course of her acting career — baseball catcher, pirate queen, sleeper super-spy among them. But her greatest athletic challenge came in her personal life, when she became an Olympic-caliber archery champion at age 41.
It all started as an unlikely notion, Davis, now 63, tells PEOPLE, when she was watching the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and became fascinated with the sport of archery, where American Justin Huish won two gold medals.
“They had a lot of coverage of archery because America was winning all the gold medals, And I was like Wow!” Davis remembers in this week’s issue, explaining that it appealed to her performative side. (The actress had already won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for 1988’s The Accidental Tourist.) “It’s very dramatic and beautiful and just thought casually, ‘I wonder if I’d be good at that?’” she says.
Finding a sport to excel at had already been percolating in Davis’ mind: though the 6’0” actress had little previous athletic experience beyond high jumping and hurdles on her high school track team. But her film career had revealed she had an affinity for physical disciplines.
“I had learned sports for a number of movies: I had to learn how to play baseball, and then I had to learn fencing, and TaeKwonDo, and horseback riding, and ice skating and all kinds of stuff,” she says. “And I never thought of myself as athletic, but I was actually really good at everything.”
For more about Davis, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE.
“And so I thought ‘I want to take up a sport in the real-life way and not the movie version, because they can fake anything,” she chuckles. “Like my character in A League of Their Own only hit home runs, so I would do a nice swing, but the props guys had a giant slingshot to send the ball over the fence with. So I thought, ‘I want to see if I can really learn something real.’”
By 1997, Davis threw herself into archery. “I found a coach and became utterly obsessed,” she says. “Yeah, I took it up at 41 and it became my life for a couple of years.” Indeed, she was soon practicing five hours a day, six days a week — and after just six months of training she became the surprise winner of a string of local, national and international tournaments.
After just two years she’d become so proficient that she vied with 300 other women vying for a spot on the U.S. Olympic archery team in hopes of competing at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Her 24th place finish fell just short of qualifying her for the Olympic team, but she did score a wild card berth at the Sydney International Golden Arrow competition in 1999.
Today, Davis reveals that she still picks up the bow and arrow regularly, “but just for fun. I haven’t been competing lately.” Much of current time is filled with her acting career and her leadership of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender In Media, which conducts groundbreaking studies on the visibility of women and girls in film and television; the data her team has uncovered has played a vital role in improving the onscreen visibility of women in recent years.
She’s seen a unexpected connection with her sport of choice and the importance of women and girls seeing themselves represented in the media. In 2012, her archery coach called her to reveal he’d noticed a sudden, surprising uptick in the amount if young women taking up the sport after years of lackluster recruitment.
“Girls was always way at the bottom, and suddenly the line shot straight up and became the most populated category of men, women, boys and girls,” she remembers “And that was the year The Hunger Games and Brave came out. Girls left the theater and bought a bow. It was absolutely instant…but that’s the kind of impact that images can have.”
With her stint as a champion archer, winning an Oscar, becoming a member of MENSA and broadening Hollywood’s depiction of women, Davis has displayed an extraordinary knack for achieving challenging goals. So does she have the next big challenge in mind?
“Ah, what if I announced something right now?” she laughs. She recalls that during her stint playing the first female president on the TV series Commander In Chief, the show’s creator suggested that, in keeping with common presidential tradition, that her character indulge in a sport unique to her.
“And I immediately, for some reason, thought of rowing, that I could be rowing on the Potomac,” And he said ‘Great — learn that!’ And it turned out that I was kind of good at it. So I’m wondering how old is too old to get in the Olympics in rowing?”