Since scoring Paralympic silver in London during the 2012 Games, BP athlete ambassador Matt Stutzman has set a Guinness world record for the longest accurate shot. Aiming to go one better in medals in Rio this month, he explains how he overcame adversity to reach the top
Even as a young boy growing up in rural Iowa, US Paralympian Matt Stutzman had impeccable aim. “My mother tells stories of this time I was having a fight with my brother,” Stutzman says. “He was about 18 yards (16 metres) away, and he threw an apple at me. As I dodged it, I grabbed an apple between my toes and threw it back at him, and it hit him right between the eyes.” Stutzman, who was born without arms, has rarely missed a target since that day in his family’s apple orchard. Now he’s setting his sights on winning gold for Team USA at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. Known as the 'Armless Archer', Stutzman is a top-ranked Paralympic archer in the United States. He won a silver medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games and in 2015 broke the Guinness World Record for the longest accurate shot from 310 yards (or 283 metres) — shattering a record that was previously held by an able-bodied person.
Stutzman says his ambition and perseverance comes from his family. Adopted when he was just 13 months old, he was raised by parents who encouraged him to overcome his challenges and push past his disability. “They treated me like a normal child,” he says. “Having that support group when I was really young, to help me dig deep and figure things out, I feel was a huge key to why I am successful today.” Stutzman got his start in the sport in 2009, when he was a stay-at-home father trying to provide for his family. He asked his wife if he could purchase a bow and arrow so that he could hunt and put food on the table for their sons. After teaching himself how to shoot using his legs and his toes, Stutzman entered an archery tournament with 550 able-bodied competitors.
“As silly as it sounds, I actually thought I was going there to compete against people without arms,” he says. “But the reality is that I’m the only one who does this.” Heading into Rio, Stutzman is poised to win another medal, perhaps even gold. He explains to BP Magazine how he overcame adversity to reach the top of the U.S. para-archery rankings - and his plans to become the greatest archer in the world.
Many people view you as an anomaly. How do you view yourself?
I’ve viewed myself all my life as, not somebody who has a physical disability, but as somebody who overcame a challenge at a young age and was willing to prove to the world that that didn’t matter in life. Having no arms, you don’t look at yourself that way, but other people are constantly staring at you while you do everything, whether it’s eating your food or taking care of your kids in public. And at those times I just have to dig deep and tell myself that I’m okay, I’m normal. This is who I am, and there’s nothing that can change to make it different.
How have you turned what the world might see as a weakness into a strength?
A lot of people look at a physical disability as weakness. There’s something about that person that looks weak to them. But for me, what I’m trying to do is show the world that having a disability is not a weakness. It’s actually a strength; you can change people’s minds about thinking you’re weak.
What does it mean to represent the US in the Paralympics?
To represent America, it’s almost like you can't describe it. The first time I got my Team USA jersey, I had chills. The whole country wants you to do well, and you don’t want to let them down. All that energy just makes you feel like you’re the happiest man in the world.
What would you tell somebody who thinks they can be great but feels held back?
I would tell them that anything is possible. If I can shoot a bow with no arms and compete against people with arms and win, I don’t know what their excuse is. They should be able to push through anything.
What does your daily routine look like?
It consists of waiting for my three-year-old to jump in my bed as my alarm clock, saying he’s hungry and he’s ready to start his day. At that point, I get up and help my wife get my two older boys ready for school. Once they’re off to school, I’ll get my bows out. I’ll make sure that the bows are still in tune or check to see if we need to fix anything arrow-related. Once I have that all figured out, I’ll go outside and set up a target at 50 meters and sit in a chair for the next three to five hours shooting my bow.
Why do you want to win so badly?
I want to win because I have boys at home. I want to prove to them that you can do anything. Plus, there’s the whole world looking at you trying to accomplish the unthinkable. How can a guy come in and win something when he has no arms? I want to prove that it’s more about perseverance and working hard to achieve your goals, than it is about the medals or the fame.
There’s a viral video of you shooting hoops. What motivated you to give basketball a try?
When I was little, before archery, I wanted to be a professional basketball player. I told my dad that’s what I wanted to do, and he bought me a hoop and basketball and told me to begin training. So at eight years old, four hours a day, I played basketball. Now that my sons are older, I like to school them a little bit and show them a guy without arms can still hang with the best.
You’ve accomplished so much. Why do you keep going?
I’ve accomplished a lot in my career, but the reason why I continue to practice and train and spend time away from my boys is because I want to be known as the best in the world. Until I’m shooting perfect scores, I’m not going to quit.
- BP is a partner of the International Paralympic Committee, and also supports 10 national Paralympic committees in the UK, US, Angola, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore, Turkey and Trinidad & Tobago.