Lee Ford, Georgia: recurve, Paralympian
Ford has had Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective-tissue disorder, all her life, but it wasn’t diagnosed until a few years ago. Her left leg is paralyzed and she struggles with balance, so she shoots while seated on a shooting chair known as a drum throne. She says para-archers deal with the added challenge of handling pain and/or disabilities, so they can’t practice as long as able-bodied archers. But rules for para-archers are the same.
“Archery is the great equalizer,” Ford said. “You can be a relatively new archer and find yourself on the shooting line next to archery greats like Jennifer (Nichols) Hardy or Amanda Nichols. There’s no separation. Para-archers shoot the same target facing, and the rules and scoring are the same. We just may not get our own arrows. We have an archer’s agent.”
A severe injury in 2005 made her withdraw from many activities she once enjoyed.
“Before my injury, I was a belly dancer and one of the top fire performers in the Southeast,” Ford said. “I was always active, but I stopped doing a lot of activities. By 2008, my friend wanted to get me out of my house, so she took me to a welding shop where we shot arrows. I was hooked. Once I had archery, I realized I could still go and be active. And I still breathe fire every once in a while.”
Ashlee Sheppard, California: compound, World Championship silver medalist
“Archery is confidence,” Sheppard said. “It’s the first athletic thing I’ve ever been relatively good at, and it represents my dream. I work hard all day and I’m stressed, but archery is my dream. My screensaver at work is archery to remind me of why I’m going through all this and to inspire me to be better.”
Sheppard has peripheral neuropathy, a degenerative disease that causes numbness and weakness in her extremities. She gave up swimming and water polo in high school, and picked up archery. She then got serious about the sport as a sophomore at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
“My disease makes me weak, and I realized in middle school that it would limit a lot of what I could do,” Sheppard said. “If I’d known there was a sport I could be good at that would boost my confidence so much, my middle- and high-school years would have been so much better. So many people suffer with this disease, and I encourage them to try archery. Anything that can boost a child’s confidence is worth a try.”
John Stubbs, Warrington, Cheshire, England: compound, World Champion
“Archery enabled me to do things, go places and achieve what I never thought possible,” Stubbs said.
At age 24, Stubbs was returning home from work when he was involved in a horrific traffic accident. He was read his last rites twice, developed septicemia, was induced into a coma for three weeks, had his right leg amputated above the knee, and underwent 23 surgeries in 28 days. Unable to cope with life as a disabled person, Stubbs attempted suicide, but eventually got the assistance Stubbs said he “so desperately needed.”
“Eventually I was able to put my previous skills to use in a new career as a wheelchair designer, and then I found archery,” Stubbs said. “I was the England Disabled Cricket captain and was looking for a hobby. I attended a disability sports open day and saw something going on across the field, so I inquired about what they were doing. I was taken to the archery range, gave it a try and took to it like a duck to water! I took up archery in 1994 and have been an international archer since 1998. Now I’m a UK Sport-funded athlete, which allows me to train full time. The amount of funding an individual receives is based on performance, and I’ve worked very hard to get where I am now.”
Stubbs is No. 2 in the World Para-Archery rankings and has won too many awards to list in this article. The only custom equipment this inspiring para-archer uses is a wheelchair quiver.
Russell Wolfe, Pennsylvania: recurve, Paralympian
Wolfe started archery at school and in his back yard with his brothers in 1985. He was introduced to competitive para-archery at the Veterans Wheelchair Games in 1999, and was invited by Paralympian Chuck Lear to attend the 2004 Nationals.
Wolfe, who competes in the individual W2 recurve division, has been a member of the PARA-USAT (United States Archery Team) for seven years. He came to Paralympic sports after 11 years of military duty, when non-combat injuries left him paralyzed. He competed in his first national competition in 2004 and first Paralympic Games in 2008.
“Unlike other Paralympic sports, there are only three divisions in para-archery, which intensifies the competition,” Wolfe said. “You have to accept that your disability may put you at a disadvantage going into a match. You have to trust in your training, your shot and yourself that you will come out on top. Chances are, you won’t make the team the first couple of years you try out. Listen and observe others who have made the team before. Their experience could be a key to your success.”
Eric Bennett, Arizona: compound, Paralympian
Bennett got started in archery with a fiberglass bow at age 7. His dad, a bowhunter, took Bennett along when he practiced. By age 14, Bennett had a compound bow and was bowhunting with his father.
After losing his right arm above the elbow in a rollover car accident at age 15, Bennett abandoned archery. He returned to the sport in his early 20s because his dad wanted them to bowhunt together again. That desire inspired his father to craft a bow Bennett could shoot with his feet. Bennett harvested an elk with the foot-bow and began looking for better ways to shoot. A mouth tab enabled him to hunt and compete again with handheld bows. Now he uses a mechanical release that fits onto his shoulder.
“My bow is not modified but the release I use is custom made,” Bennett said. “I wear a release that’s mounted on the shoulder of my missing arm. The release has a cable attached, and the opposite end of the cable has a small lever that goes in my mouth. I bite the lever to activate the release. My dad and I made the release several years ago. It has gone through many changes but still works very similar to our original design.”Bennett said he’s always been competitive, challenging his cousins in sports, archery, video games and card games since childhood. Shooting his bow after a decade away from the sport inspired him to become a better archer so he could compete against his family. His desire to improve and compete at the highest level motivates him to put in long hours and hard work. He also takes pride in setting an example for his kids and the students he coaches.
“Archery is such a big part of my life that it’s hard to describe what it means to me,” he said. “Archery for me is passion. It’s an outlet for my competitive drive but also an avenue for motivating others. I love shooting and competing, but I also love passing that knowledge and desire on to those I coach.”
Martha Chavez, California: compound, World Champion
“Archery brought me out of my introverted shell and gave me a competitive edge I never knew I had,” Chavez said. “I’ve done more as a disabled person than I ever did able-bodied.”
That statement from this inspiring para-archer takes on extra meaning considering Chavez is an Army veteran who served 15 years. She also competed in hand-cycling races before getting hooked on archery in 2011.
As a child, she suffered and recovered from polio. Later, a surgery to repair injuries sustained during an Army training exercise triggered the latent disease, leaving Chavez with little movement in her lower body. She has used a wheelchair for five years, and competed in archery for three. She ranks No. 1 in the United States and No. 37 worldwide in the open compound division.
“To compete in hand-cycling, you have to build up adrenaline and enthusiasm before a race; the opposite is true with archery,” Chavez said. “Archery lowered my blood pressure. It’s the perfect sport for people who have PTSD or even autism. You can start archery at any time; it isn’t age-restrictive. Hitting the target lets you know you can do something active. It’s the first step for some people to find life again.”
Chavez is a member of the U.S. Paralympic team and also part of Amvets. She and her coach, Jeff Fabry, travel and teach archery clinics to veterans. At the 2013 Archery World Championships in Bangkok, Thailand, Chavez earned a team silver medal, but her proudest accomplishment came while teaching an archery clinic.
“While in Oklahoma at the Endeavor Games, I was selected to coach children of all abilities,” Chavez said. “One girl was particularly hesitant to try archery, but I worked with her and she tried it and had fun. Later, her mom told me her daughter only wanted me to teach her because I talked to her and understood her. That meant more to me than winning any competition.”
Jeff Fabry, California: compound, Paralympic gold medalist
Fabry is a three-time Paralympic medalist in archery. At the London 2012 Paralympic Games, he became the first gold medalist for USA Archery at the Olympic or Paralympic Games since 1996. Fabry was injured in a motorcycle accident at age 15, losing his right arm above the elbow and his right leg above the knee.
“If I didn’t have archery, I’d hate to see what I’d be doing now,” Fabry said. “It’s molded me into such a better person. It’s unbelievable. It’s what keeps me going.”
Fabry shoots a compound bow with a mouth tab. He holds the bow in his left arm and uses the mouth tab to draw and release the arrow. The mouth tab is made from a nylon dog leash, and it’s the key to his technique.
He’s an ambassador to the World of Disabled Athletes and Archery, helping veterans pursue archery through Team Amvets Freedom Archers. Freedom Archers promotes physical rehabilitation for injured veterans by focusing on strengths instead of weaknesses.
Matt Stutzman, Iowa: compound, Paralympic silver medalist
“I was born without arms, but was blessed to have been raised by two incredible (and incredibly patient) parents who taught me long ago that impossible is a state of mind … and not one that I should embrace,” Stutzman said on his website.
Stutzman, who is well-known as “The Armless Archer,” holds the bow with his feet. From a seated position, he puts his arrow in place using his left foot, pushes the compound bow away with his right foot, and draws the bow with a release aid strapped to his body.
He won a silver medal in the individual compound open division at the 2012 Olympic Games. He holds a Guinness World Record, which he set in 2011, for the longest accurate shot: 230 yards.
“If I can inspire just one person, then my job’s done,” Stutzman said. “Really, (by) watching me, people can only say, ‘I haven’t got an excuse. I can’t say my back’s hurting or I got a sore finger, this guy’s shooting arrows with no arms,’” Stutzman told “The Telegraph.” “I kinda hope I make everyone realize you can do whatever you want in this life if you just try.”