Janice Walth has always been legally blind, but that doesn’t stop her from arrowing the bull’s-eye. In 2007, she set five world records and clenched the overall silver medal for men and women at the Paralympic Archery World Championships in Korea.
In 2009, Walth joined the U.S. team in the Czech Republic for the International Paralympics Archery World Championship. She snagged the bronze medal and broke two of her previous world records. The Paralympic World Championships dropped the visually impaired category in 2011 and 2013 because of low participation. Nevertheless, Walth is making strides for the sport as an archer, philanthropist and advocate for the visually impaired. This is her story.
How did you get started in archery?
When I met my husband, Courtney, in 1999, he and a friend were starting to shoot bows. Courtney’s friend, Ross, set up a range in his vineyard on the outskirts of Lodi, and they were out there all the time practicing. Then they joined the Sacramento Archery Club and began competing in California’s state tournaments. I traveled with him, and began wondering what it felt like to shoot a bow, and what the sensation was like when the arrow hit the target. In 2003, I began searching the Internet to learn whether any blind people were shooting archery.
That’s how I found out British Blind Sport developed a technique called tactile archery, and they were using it in England. I requested more information, and they sent pictures of adaptive equipment used for sighting. That’s all we needed. Courtney copied their design, built me my first of many versions of the tactile equipment, and began teaching me how to shoot a bow. I started shooting with Courtney and Ross in the vineyard, and then with the Sacramento Archery Club.
How does your visual impairment affect your archery?
I’ve been legally blind all my life. I lost most of my sight as an adult. I have a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. Archery doesn’t seem like a sport a blind person could do, but that’s only true if sighting were the most important part of shooting. I believe sighting is about 5 percent of the shot. The other 95 percent is form, how you perform the shot, and how consistently you perform your shot sequence.
The main things a blind person fights is body sway and keeping the bow straight. Everyone sways, but sighted people can see it and correct it. Because my bow-sight is mounted on a tripod and not on my bow, if I sway forward onto my toes, the shot goes way left. If I sway back onto my heels, the shot goes way right. My sway isn’t big, but even a slight sway makes a big difference. The other problem is knowing if my bow is straight up and down. Most people can see if they’re tilting their bow and adjust it. I can’t seem to feel when my bow is tilting. I’m working to come up with a consistent form to ensure my bow is always straight.
Once you started, how did shooting make you feel?
I knew immediately that I would enjoy archery. It was challenging, but I was determined to fit in with my fellow archers in the club. The hardest part was being patient with the learning phase. The thing I hate about learning something new and complex is that your brain must take all the individual steps that make up the shot and make it routine and fluid.
Before that happens, so much thought must go into each shot, and you feel clumsy and awkward. This phase of learning took months to work through. Once my brain put the shooting sequence together, I began working on my shot. That’s when I discovered a feeling of real accomplishment. I could believe that feeling was legitimate, and that it was more than a nifty stunt. I could participate in a sport with minimal assistance, and I had reasonable expectations I wouldn’t make a fool out of myself. That was a great feeling.
What’s the most difficult part of archery?
Being consistent. I’ve struggled with that since I started.
What’s the most exciting part of archery?
Competing against other visually impaired archers. Mark Schrand (Arizona) is the only other visually impaired archer who competes at USA Archery-sanctioned tournaments. We try to compete against each other as often as possible because we love it, but it only happens once or twice a year if we’re lucky. Intensify that by eight or more participants, and you understand what makes world championships so fun. It’s the one time I can stand on the shooting line with many visually impaired archers from other countries, and feel a real connection and competitive drive. I learn how I’m doing compared to my peers. I’m excited about doing that again this summer in Donaueschingen, Germany.
How has archery helped you live with a visual impairment?
First, people of all ages, gender and abilities can shoot archery. My husband and I enjoy archery together. It keeps us close and connected as a couple. Second, it gives a sense of inclusion I hadn’t experienced throughout my life. It’s hard not to feel like an outsider in a world designed for people who can see. But once my sighting equipment is lined up on the shooting line at the range, I’m just like any other archer, shooting the same bow and arrows, and having the same struggles making my shots as any other archer, young or old, male or female, sitting or standing. We share our experiences and speak a common language, and the blindness part just goes away.
Third, it gives me a feeling of accomplishment when the shot lands where I want it to go. No one is standing behind me telling me where to point the bow, and how high or low, right or left to adjust. I’m in charge. I can feel good about my accomplishments, and take ownership of my disappointing shots. I’m devoted to sharing that feeling with other blind people. It’s a feeling I want them to experience so it can translate into other facets of their lives. Courtney and I are passionate about bringing archery to the men and women who lost their sight while serving our country in the military. We want them to know they can still participate in a precision sport like archery. We hope this experience shows them that other things can make their lives rewarding.
Share your journey to becoming a Paralympic medalist.
Since Courtney and Ross were enjoying archery competition, I asked if State Archers of California would let me participate in their tournaments. I received permission to compete as a guest at the State Indoor tournament in Tulare in January 2004. I was a guest because they had no category for visually impaired archers. My mom was my spotter, and she has helped me at most of my competitions ever since. Basically, the spotter walks me on and off the shooting line, lets me know where my arrows hit, and helps me score. I enjoyed that experience and shot my first outdoor tournament that May, and then the State Outdoor in June 2004. That’s when State Archers of California voted to make visually impaired archery a permanent category. My actions on the field proved a blind person wasn’t a liability.
In 2005 I contacted USA Archery and asked if I could participate in the U.S. Outdoor Nationals. At that time, they had no category for visually impaired archers. They said I could, so Courtney and I traveled to Colorado Springs for our first national competition. I was so pleased when they announced at the awards dinner that I was the first visually impaired archer to compete at the U.S. Outdoor Nationals, and I received a first-place trophy. Courtney and I continued participating in our state tournaments and the Outdoor Nationals the next year. I was the only visually impaired archer competing at the time. Even now, only two of us compete at USA Archery-sanctioned tournaments. In 2007 I was asked by the head Paralympic coach, Randi Smith, if I’d like to travel with the Paralympic team to Korea for the World Championships. That was the first time visually impaired archers participated at the world-championship level. I was thrilled and amazed to participate at that level.
What preparations helped you win the silver medal and set five world records in Korea in 2007, and the win bronze in the Czech Republic in 2009?
My preparation for the 2007 world championships began with fundraising. It’s hard asking people for money. But with help from many generous archery suppliers, I had some great raffle prizes, and was grateful to the fellow archers who supported me. My training consisted of lots of practice. Aside from that, I had no expectations going into the competition. I had never shot against my peers, and I was just thrilled to be there.
During the competition, I couldn’t get over how fun the whole experience was. I just felt happy. The night before the gold-medal round, I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep, but competition was such a foreign feeling. I couldn’t quite process it, so I slept pretty well. The strangest feeling was realizing that even though I lost the gold-medal round, I still won silver. My mind had to process that. And when they told me I had set world records, that put me over the top!
What challenges did you face in those tournaments?
The biggest challenge was returning to the world championships two years later in the Czech Republic. I tried hard not to have expectations, but that wasn’t possible. The best thing would have been to feel what I felt in Korea, but you can’t get that back once you’ve medaled. I made some common mistakes that second time, but hopefully I’ve learned from them. My first mistake was something everyone knows not to do, but does it anyway: I changed my bow’s draw weight about a week before.
Nevertheless, I broke two of my records the first day of qualifiers and felt good doing it. But the archer from Italy was very good and very strong, and it started getting into my head. The next dumb thing was changing my form before the semifinal round. I was compensating for feeling like I was losing confidence. The bottom line is confidence, and I let mine slip. It still was a wonderful experience. I’m really working on believing in myself and in my coach. I hope that will keep me focused.
How did it feel to win at that level, and to break two of your own records?
It felt like nothing I’d done before. I’ve never been involved in competitive sports before, so it was a whole new experience. I learned something about myself. I enjoyed competition; almost craved it. But that craving is rarely satisfied because of the lack of competitive archers in the U.S. That’s why I’m so hopeful our numbers are up this year, and we’ll once again come together in Germany to share the experience and inspire more countries to promote archery for visually impaired citizens.
What are your archery goals?
I’ll keep training and competing. I hope to participate in more international archery events. I’m hoping the category for visually impaired archers will soon be included in the full Paralympic Games, which are every four years. I also plan to keep reaching out to other individuals and organizations associated with blind people to introduce them to archery. Archery has so much to offer and teach blind people about their possibilities. My husband and I like informing wounded veterans who lost their sight about the sport, and assuring them they can do it. Archery would be tremendous for their recovery, and help them reconnect in their community.
What goals besides archery are you striving to achieve?
I have my bachelor’s degree in adaptive technology for adults with disabilities, and I’ve worked as an adaptive technology trainer. I enjoy teaching others, especially those who are visually impaired, how to use technology to improve their lives. I’ve done research in literacy, and how to teach someone with a print disability to become a fluent reader with screen-reading software. I helped develop teaching strategies and put them to work in the classroom.
I’ve witnessed how literacy changes people’s lives. I want to continue this work. My position on the board of directors at Society for the Blind in Sacramento enables me to keep working in this area. I’ve seen how technology can improve people’s lives, but only when it’s taught in a way that fits the individual’s lifestyle.
What archery lessons apply to your daily life and, possibly, career?
Patience. Nothing worthwhile happens overnight. No matter what your challenges, you can know what it feels like to experience success through hard work. It’s true with archery and it’s true in life.
What advice do you give first-time archers, particularly those with a visual impairment or disability?
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Enjoy the challenge. Hard work speaks for itself. Keep it fun. Join a club, or shoot with family or friends at the range. Compete in tournaments just for the experience. You might like it. It’s a social sport. You’ll meet lots of nice people of all ages.
If you have a visual impairment or other disability, search the Internet for organizations like Discovery Blind Sports in northern California, Break the Barriers in Fresno, or Shared Adventures in Santa Cruz. They have all-inclusive programs that help get you started in archery.
Is there anything else you want to share?
Surround yourself with positive people. My family has never seen me as different than anyone else. They never told me I couldn’t do something. Not everyone has that kind of support. Try to find it in your church or social group. Take a chance and reach beyond your comfort zone. It’ll be worth it.
Walth proves you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. Maybe you want to visit your local archery shop or compete in your first tournament. Maybe you want to try bowhunting. Perhaps you’re an Olympic hopeful. No matter your goal, courage is on the inside. You’ve got what it takes.