Matt Stutzman has stern archery advice for his son - don’t shoot with your feet. While strange by any measure, this advice is even stranger coming from an athlete who won a Paralympic medal and risen to international fame by drawing the bow with his feet.
“I won’t let him shoot with his feet and he gets mad because he thinks the only way to be the best in the world is with your feet. How cool is that?” Stutzman said. “I’m like, ‘you have arms, use them’! He’s like, ‘no, I don’t want to. I want to use my feet like you because that’s how you win’.”
Stutzman’s son is not the only one captivated by his abilities. Ever since the London 2012 Paralympic Games, the USA archer’s unique style has attracted attention from around the world and praise from able-bodied and Para athletes alike.
“I am hearing people say, ‘you’re awesome, you are very inspirational’ and stuff like that. It’s still weird for me because this is just my life,” Stutzman said of his fame as the ‘Armless Archer’.
“I am wrapping my head around the fact that some people can watch what I do and it motivates them. I have to be understanding of that because this is just me and I don’t think I am special or different from anyone else but they obviously see it differently.”
Now headed to his third Paralympic Games, the father of three is hoping to move one step up from the silver result he got in the men’s individual compound at London 2012 and motivate even more people to get off the couch.
Rise, fall, try again
Stutzman is the only archer at the top level who uses his feet to draw the bow and release the arrows. With the exception of his custom-made release, he uses the same equipment as the others.
“My form is not really any different than anybody else’s with hands so I actually will pretend I have hands and my shoulders are my hands,” Stutzman said.
“It makes it easier for people coaching me to translate because I can look at their hand and then translate that change into my shoulder. It’s a different way of looking at things but it works for me.”
As the competition results would suggest, Stutzman’s method is working. In addition to his Paralympic medal, the archer won silver at the 2015 Para Pan American Games and bronze at the 2019 World Archery Para Championships, among other honours.
His only loss at London 2012 came against Finland’s Jere Forsberg in the gold medal match.
“During the final I felt really calm actually, excluding the last end,” Forsberg said about facing Stutzman.
“The first thought after my last arrow hit the 10 was relief, that now it's over. I didn't want the final to go to one arrow shoot off. After that, the realisation that I had won Paralympic gold in my first Paralympics hit me and that was one of the best feelings I have ever had.”
After taking silver in London, Stutzman’s aim for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games was set even higher. He stumbled in the round of 16, however, and was a surprise drop out from the medal hunt. Disappointed with the result, Stutzman then took time off from the sport to re-evaluate his priorities and spend time with his family.
“I had a little bit of a rough 2016, 2017,” Stutzman said. “I put too much pressure on myself. But [my sons] don’t care if I win or lose. I’m still just their dad so now I am just getting back to having a good time like I did before.”
Eager to set a good example for his sons, Stutzman soon returned to training and even switched to shooting with USA’s able-bodied team to get stronger for Tokyo 2020.
“This is why I am here,” he said. “I am still trying to set examples for my boys to show that even if you can be good at something or you do get a little bit of fame, you can still be just a humble, nice person. I want them to grow up to be men and I feel that by example is the best way to teach them that.”
Stutzman returned to medal form again in 2019, taking bronze at the world championships in ’s-Hertogenbosch, Netherlands in June. While his wife and children were not on location, Stutzman made sure they stayed up to date with all the results.
In addition to what he teaches his sons, Stutzman also spreads his gospel wider as a motivational speaker. His messages are many.
“One of them is, what’s your excuse?,” Stutzman said. “If I can take archery and compete in a sport that you would think you need hands for, then what’s their excuse about not getting off the couch?”
Much as in 2012, the positive response at his archery and motivational speeches continues to overwhelm the 37-year-old who first picked up the bow two decades ago. For Stutzman, the fame has meant much more than photos with fans and media interviews.
“Now I can support my kids and that’s a great feeling as a father. That’s what everybody in the sport wants to do. They just want to take care of their family. Archery has given me that chance,” he said.
“I went from disability, no job, to now I can buy them shoes and buy them food and get shirts and clothes and put a roof over their heads. That’s the biggest thing ever.”