This story was originally broadcast on November 3, 2019.
One of the top-ranked archers in the country is 37-year-old Matt Stutzman of Fairfield, Iowa. “The last time we looked into it, 1% of archers in the world make a living shooting a bow,” he said.
He’s not bragging – he is really just that good, and has the accolades to prove it. “January of 2010 is when I decided to be the best archer in the world. And by 2011, I had already made the U.S. Team, and by 2012, I went to my first Games, and won a Silver!”
And he did it all with his feet.
Yes – one of the most celebrated archers in the world was born without arms.
“When it first started, it was, ‘Look at this guy without arms!’ And now it’s like, ‘Uggh, Matt’s here,'” he laughed.
His competitors have learned to fear him – not only those at the Paralympic Games in London, where he won his silver medal, but also able-bodied archers that he’s bested time and time again.
Stutzman basically had to figure it out. So, just how does he do it?
His only adaptation is a strap around his chest, which he uses to pull back the bow string, as he demonstrated for correspondent Lee Cowan.
“And at this point I’m adjusting my strap to make sure it’s in the same place,” he said. “That way when I draw the bow back, I push my leg away from my chest. I bring my right shoulder up and I set it. Bring my face down to my release … and then I shoot.
“If I can take a bow that’s not modified for me and I can compete against people that have arms, and beat them at their own sport, well, then, what’s everybody else’s excuse?”
Stutzman is pretty easy to spot at a tournament; he’s usually the only one sitting down.
He knows he’s the center of attention, and believe it or not, he actually likes it that way; it’s a competitive advantage. “For me, I’m used to being looked at all the time,” he said. “Where most archers who are able-bodied have never had that experience, so when it’s time to make it count, then they get nervous, where I don’t get the nervousness like they do. ‘Cause I’ve been in the situation my whole life.”
In case you can’t tell already, this single father of three doesn’t consider himself disabled at all.
Cowan asked, “Are there times though that you just wish you had arms?”
“No,” Stutzman replied.
“Not once. Nope.”
You might find that surprising, but he’s serious. At lunch, eating with his feet is as ordinary as anything, to him. Back at his house, Cowan watched Stutzman unscrew a lug nut to change a tire. It was hard not to offer help, but the fact was he really didn’t need it.
He’s a car nut, always had been. He can out-drive just about anyone, yes, with his feet, in a car that is not specially modified. “It’s like anybody could drive this car,” he said. Well, not exactly, at least not the way he drives, doing donuts in a parking lot and all.
“I even have a motorcycle permit. Absolutely, I can legally ride a non-modified motorcycle with my friends,” he said.
It all started right after Stutzman was born, when his birth parents learned something had gone wrong. “Based on what the doctors told them, that was too much for them,” he said. “They were just overwhelmed.”
So, they put him up for adoption when he was just two months old. And not long after that, Jean and Leon Stutzman entered his life.
Cowan asked, “So, do you remember the first time you saw him?”
“Oh, yes,” said Jean. “Here was this little curly-haired blonde head guy and he just kinda sat up like, Well, here I am!”
“He was a cute little stinker, and fell in love immediately, I guess,” Leon said.
They raised him along with their seven other children, just like any other kid.
Cowan asked, “Were there times when you’d see him doing something like riding a motorcycle or something and you’d just look out the window and say, ‘Oh my God, How?'”
“That’s when we went into double prayer time!” laughed Leon.
They gave Matt prosthetic limbs at one point, but they sat on the shelf most of the time. So, they decided not to really modify anything in their home. Leon said, “We decided not to do anything just because he’s not going to live in a handicapped world. He’s going to live in a world where people expect he has to adapt to those kinds of things. So, that was the philosophy that we took: figure it out.”
“I don’t think it was an orchestrated thing, it was just kind of, he’ll find his way. He’ll figure it out,” Jean said.
And he did. But as he got older, despite his abilities and willingness to try anything, there weren’t many willing to give him a try.
“I couldn’t find a job,” he said.
“No one would give you a chance?” Cowan asked.
“No. Like, I even went to try to do a typing job, because I was that desperate to try to figure out something.”
“So, what was your mindset at that point?
“I was pretty depressed. You’re supposed to be a man, taking care of your kids, and nobody would give me a chance to prove myself.”
It was 2009, at the height of the financial crisis, but it also happened to be deer season in Iowa. He thought if he could teach himself how to shoot a bow, maybe he could at least bag a deer and feed his family.
He said, “I went out and got the cheapest bow I could find, and I actually went out that year and shot a deer. I am now excited about life again, because I had just set a goal, went out, and accomplished putting food on the table.”
To earn a little extra cash, he started entering target shooting competitions, where one bow maker asked to sponsor him.
Pretty exciting, until a friend of Matt’s told him why: “And he goes, ‘Matt, the reason why they sponsor you is because you have no arms, and you draw attention to their products, and it’s not because you’re good.’ The reality was, I wasn’t that good. And I didn’t want to be known as, like, the sideshow, or the guy who gets stuff because he had no arms. I wanted to be known as the best archer in the world.
“And that’s where it clicked for me. I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m going to prove everybody wrong. I’m going to show them that I am the best, and that I deserve sponsorship because I’m the best, not because I’m unique, or different.'”
Stutzman had been aiming for the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo this summer, but COVID has pushed the Games to next year. And while he says a gold would be nice, that’s not all he’s after anymore.
“I started archery just to provide for my family, right? But now I’ve seen it’s much bigger. When someone with a disability comes up to me saying they saw me do this or that, now they can do that, then it makes me feel good about myself.
“The feeling is, it’s almost better than winning. Like, what is defining of the best archer in the world? The best archer in the world is somebody who changes the sport, makes it better, or changes people that watch what you do and make them better. In my mind, that’s considered the best archer in the world.”
For more info:
- Matt Stutzman, Team USA
- Matt Stutzman, worldarchiery.org
- Follow @ArmlessArcher on Twitter and Facebook
- The sports documentary “Rising Phoenix” debts on Netflix August 26
Story produced by Sari Aviv. Editor: Mike Levine.