PARIS – The archer with no arms asked the children to pick a target in the clump of three balloons. Which ballon did they want — white, purple or pink? Purple, a kid replied.
Holding his bow with his right foot and pulling back its string with a tiny hook tucked under his chin, Matt Stutzman let fly. With pinpoint accuracy, his arrow flew across the school hall, punctured the white and pink balloons with a loud pop and left the purple intact.
“Whoa!" the kids marveled.
“He can do that? He's amazing!" a little girl exclaimed.
And that, one arrow at a time, is how the silver medalist from the 2012 London Paralympics is shaping young minds so they won't grow up with the same prejudices as the people who wouldn't give the American athlete a job before archery changed his life, because he has no arms.
Without work, Stutzman was just looking to put food on the table when took up archery. Within weeks, he’d figured out how to shoot and went into the woods around his home in Fairfield, Iowa, and bagged a deer. Holding the knife with his feet, he was cutting it up when his kids came home from school.
“They were like, ‘What is that?’ And I was like, ‘It’s meat,'" he says. “They didn’t know until later that it was a deer.”
Competing in the 2012 Paralympics put him on a new trajectory.
“I had people offering me jobs like crazy and I’m like, ‘I don’t want to work right now. I want to shoot my bow.’”
At this late stage in his trailblazing career, the 40-year-old Stutzman said changing thinking about disability is more important to him than the medal he hopes to win at next year's Paris Paralympics.
“For me, it’s about changing the world, right?" he said. “So, yes, it’s awesome to win a gold. Like who doesn’t want to win a gold? But if I can influence just one person in a positive way by my performance, whether I win or lose, then for me that is a win."
The kids at the Funès-Monceau primary school in Paris certainly got the message. They were thrilled when Stutzman dropped by their class Wednesday and started out with a cheery “high five?” — reaching out with one of the small stumps that protrude from his shoulders, which the kids gleefully fist-bumped.
Visiting France's capital before Paralympic tickets go on sale next week, Stutzman then gave his young audience a very short version of his astounding life story: born with no arms; put up for adoption when he was 3 months old; spent the next 10 months in an orphanage before Leon and Jean Stutzman made him their child.
“They taught me how to do everything when I was just a little kid,” he told them.
Want to see? Stutzman tied one of the girls' shoelaces with his toes. More whoas. He signed autographs with his right foot. Whoas again. And when he told them that he holds his fork in a foot to eat, some kids grabbed one of their own and wrestled it to their mouths.
“There's nothing I can't do. If you can think it, I can do it," he said. “Which means if I can do it, you can do it, too.”
That's a message that Paralympic organizers hope will be heard on a far larger scale when 4,400 athletes flock to Paris from Aug. 28-Sept. 8. They are anticipating that athlete performances will not only change perceptions but that Paris' preparations will also leave a legacy of improved accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities. This in a capital city that people with physical disabilities say is tough to navigate, not least because much of its subway system isn't accessible for people who use wheelchairs.
“It would have been great if they could do more in the time frame that they had,” said Duane Kale, a vice president of the International Paralympic Committee who accompanied Stutzman to the school.
Still, Kale hopes the Paris Games will help normalize disability in France. The country is under pressure to do better. Citing multiple failings toward adults and children with disabilities, an arm of the Council of Europe, the continent’s foremost human rights body, in April found France in violation of a European treaty on social and economic rights.
“The impact of the games will be enormous,” Kale said. “The effect of that will take time and it will change over the years to come. But it wouldn’t have happened if the games didn’t occur.”
Stutzman is excited about the possibility of competing against as many as three other archers with no arms next year. He was the only one when he won silver in 2012. Because of wear and tear from archery on his hips and knees, Stutzman's fourth Paralympics could be his last.
Among those his career has inspired are Russian archer Aleksandr Gombozhapov, who also shoots with no arms. Despite Russia's invasion of Ukraine, IPC member countries voted last month to clear a path for some Russians to compete as neutral athletes in Paris. Stutzman hopes Gombozhapov will be among them and feels that the obstacles his Russian rival has overcome outweigh the backdrop of the war.
“I know what he’s gone through to get to where he’s at,” Stutzman said. “Whatever’s happening is happening and having him compete, I think, just says a lot because he’s an athlete and he’s a person.
“Archery has changed his life,” Stutzman said. "Like it changed my life.”
AP coverage of the Paris Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games