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Paralympic Archery: How Hearts and Minds Matter More

Archery made its Paralympic debut during the 1960 Rome Games. It was one of eight sports featured then and remains an important part of the Paralympics today. Lia Coryell and Matt Stutzman of Team USA are incredible Paralympians who are looking forward to continuing their legacy at the Tokyo Games in August. We asked them about their journeys and experiences and what advice they have for aspiring para archers. 

A360: What was your experience at Rio 2016 like? Did it fuel you for future competitions?

MS: Rio 2016 was good. I had high expectations for that one. I lost in my second elimination match to an equipment malfunction that was out of my control. I was shooting incredibly. The score I shot before the malfunction was the highest score of the competition, including the gold medal match. I learned about checking my equipment before each shot, the process of making sure my stuff is what it is supposed to be, as well as having the right people behind me to check my stuff. Ever since that moment, I haven’t had an issue.

I felt amazing going into the Rio Games, but after the loss, I was literally like, “I don’t know — I don’t want to shoot for a little bit. I want to take a second to reevaluate things.” Within a day I decided to push myself even further. I took a day to say, “I’m done.” Then the next day, I was more motivated than I’ve ever been. I was already shooting again on the field even though I was eliminated. I made the decision to shoot in able-bodied divisions after the games, which was a good decision.

LC: I don’t think I grasped the magnitude of making the 2016 Rio team until I arrived in Houston for “processing” before flying to Brazil. When they fitted me for the Opening Ceremony outfit and I got to design my Team USA ring is when it started to sink in. My takeaway from Rio was that no matter what the situation, I have to stick to what I know, to find that quiet and uninterrupted mental state that allows my energy to flow in my process. I am very much aware of how much my mental game plays into success on the podium.

A360 (to Matt): How did you transition from hunting to Olympic archery?

MS: Bowhunting season was over in Iowa, so I honestly just hung up my bow thinking I’d go back to getting a job. My buddy said, “You shoot pretty good, you should go to a tournament.” That was in the first half of December. I looked it up, and the closest tournament I found was in January: the ISAA Pro-Am in Iowa. I found everything I was looking for, and I knew what I wanted to do, so I started training to become the best archer I could be. 

I competed at the ISAA Pro-Am after (literally) one month on the range. I didn’t even know how the scoring worked. I knew there were different colors and there was a bull’s-eye: no scoring, nothing. It was completely new. I learned at the tournament. I didn’t know the time limit or anything about it. I think for the first tournament, it was the perfect thing I needed. By going into it learning as I went, I was able to ask the right questions to the right people. I know you can sometimes get information that is not always correct. By learning directly from the event, I learned it straight from the source.

A360 (to Lia): How did you get started in para archery?

LC: I attended a VA adaptive sports camp in San Diego in 2014 where I tried many adaptive sports and fell in love with archery, something I had never tried before. I coach a collegiate able-bodied team, and it never occurred to me that I’ve never shot a bow standing up until I taught my newer archers how to string a recurve bow sitting down. And even then — my students and I never even thought about it until another coach came over and said, “Y’all know you can string a bow standing up, too!?”

A360: Could you recount your experience of the first time you shot a bow?

MS: It was like a sense a freedom. I was doing something that people didn’t think I could do. The bow didn’t care that I had no arms. It just wanted to be shot, and I was shooting it. I thought, “The equipment was not designed for you.” I realized my Michael Jordan moment had popped up.

LC: The first time I shot a bow was at that adaptive sports camp for disabled veterans. They had to tape my hand to the bow. I still have to add adaptations to my bow grip to keep my wonky hand on the grip.

A360: What drives you? What is your inspiration to practice?

MS: The most important thing is that this is how I provide for my family, provide for my kids, and take care of everybody. Every day I wake up — and they say if you love your job, it’s no longer a job. I want them to see me not just talking about it but showing by example.

In the beginning stages of learning how to shoot, since I’m self-taught, I watched a lot of videos. I’m lucky that at the beginning of my career I was associated with some of the best archers in the U.S. and I was just a sponge. I use what I’ve learned about archery and my creativity to mix and match both.

LC: My drive to succeed comes from my need to teach, to mentor, to support, to encourage kids who are like me when I was growing up. The poor kids, the foster kids, the leftover and left out kids. I was not recruited to the para archery team because of my athletic ability or skill with a bow. I was recruited because I am so impaired and that’s just a solid truth. The Para Team needed a W1 female, which is the most impaired classification, and my deficits fit the bill. I decided early on that I was going to use this opportunity as a platform to show people that the mind is a thousand times more powerful than the human body. Anyone with a focused and tenacious mindset can make achievement look like rebellion, especially when nobody thinks you can win.

A360: What is your advice to someone interested in para archery?

MS: You can definitely do it. Reach out to me, and I can put you in touch with people that will help you reach your goal. Think outside the box. Be willing to try different things until you get it right. Find the people that are willing to help you, and don’t give up.

I’m constantly adjusting my gear. The other day I redesigned my shoulder strap and was working with T.R.U. Ball to come up with another release improvement over the last one, to make it just a little bit more efficient. If I find something that gives me a 1% better advantage in scores — that’s huge. That’s third place to first place. I have days where I just play with new things, and there’s days where I don’t play and I just get used to things. I give each new piece a good month of prep or play before I go back to the original. 

If I was a beginner going into a shop, I’d go online and do a little bit of research on the differences between compound and recurve, that way they can guide you to someone who specializes in that type of bow. Most of the people at shops know what they’re doing. At first, ask a lot of questions. Don’t be afraid to ask “What is a D-loop?” or “Why are you putting the nock there?” Try to soak it all in and don’t be afraid.

LC: Absolutely reach out to USA Archery because they have built a great resource library to help adaptive archers find a way to participate in this inclusive and diverse sport.

A360: What will your practice routine be like as we get closer to the Tokyo Games? Will it change from your regular practice routine?

MS: I have access to shooting in the country, and the archery range in town that I shoot at is private to just me, so it’s been fairly easy to maintain my practice routine, except it’s boring. It depends on the day, but my scores are where they need to be or better. I’m curious about the new release. I’ll be able to push and pull a little better, and it feels a little more solid than it was before. I’m still breaking it in.

I’ll ramp up my practice routine as it gets closer. Each day of the week I focus on a different part of training, and at the end of the week I put it all together. This Olympic Games, more than the last one, I focused on mental training and visualization, visualizing what needs to happen. I’ve been to Tokyo, so I know what needs to happen. I know what it looks like, what it smells like, so I visualize it and it’ll kind of be like, “Oh, I’ve been there before.”

LC: For the time being, my practice will continue to be based on periodization, which means I will be varying the timing and duration of the number of arrows I shoot per day outdoors to build endurance and strength leading up to Tokyo. This is a must for my weakened state.  

The silver lining is that all the months I spent trapped in my apartment due to COVID-19 and the fact that I live in Wisconsin — it’s still snowing today — I’ve had lots of time working on form and process in the 9 feet of my hallway in my 900-square-foot apartment! 

Tokyo Bound

Coryell and Stutzman each acknowledge that others have doubted them and that they see their archery skills as an act of defiance and rebellion. They take pride in the fact that their archery skills defy others’ perception of what’s possible in athletics. Both have graced one of the largest and most public stages in the world and, indeed, “grace” couldn’t describe them better.

The Paralympic archery competition will be held Aug. 27 to Sept. 4 at Yumenoshima Park Archery Field in Tokyo. Keep an eye on the NBC Olympics website and the Olympic Channel website for more information on how to watch the competitions live.



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