Kalona's 'armless archer' goes for the gold

Competing next month in Paralympics

Matt Stutzman, 29, of Fairfield amd formerly of Kalona, is competing for the U.S. Paralympic team in next month's Paraly
Matt Stutzman, 29, of Fairfield amd formerly of Kalona, is competing for the U.S. Paralympic team in next month's Paralympics in London. Stutzman, who was born without arms, came within one point of breaking the world record in archery during the Paralympic trials in April. (Josie Hannes)

Don’t tell Matt Stutzman he can’t do something. Because, chances are, you’re wrong.

The 29-year-old Fairfield father of three was born without arms and rejected prosthetics at a very young age. Instead, he learned to do nearly everything with his feet. He eats, drives, brushes his teeth and even changes his sons’ diapers with his toes.

He also can hit a target dead center with a bow and arrow from 230 yards away. And, at the end of August, the Kalona native will compete with some of the best athletes in the world in the 2012 Paralympics in London.

Stutzman, who became reacquainted with archery in 2010 and discovered the Paralympics existed just more than a year ago, has earned scores on par with archers taking part in the traditional Olympic Games that started Friday. At the Paralympic trials in April, in fact, Stutzman came within one point of breaking a world record — that’s the record held among all archers, including those without disabilities.

If he does well at the Paralympics, set to begin Aug. 29, Stutzman said he’ll have a solid argument for why he, and others like him, should have a shot at competing in the traditional Olympics in 2016.

“Right now, let’s just focus on getting a gold medal at the Paralympics,” said Stutzman, known by fans and followers as the “armless archer.” “If I can do that, then I would be willing to try to move up and compete in the Olympics.”

Rules for Olympics

Stutzman said the current rules prohibit him from competing in the regular games because, for one thing, he uses a compound bow instead of a recurve bow like those used by Olympic athletes. Stutzman said he can shoot a recurve well and could compete with practice.

“The other reason is the politics of it,” he said. “The way I shoot is not like anyone else. Even if I did shoot their type of bow, I still wouldn’t be able to compete because I sit in a chair, and it’s not fair to guys that stand.”

Much has been made of South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius’ carbon-fiber prosthetic legs and his upcoming berth in the Olympic Games. Opinions differ on whether he’s being allowed to use an enhancement and thus receiving an unfair advantage.

“There are a lot of arguments going on with him even being there,” Stutzman said. “But maybe he’s setting a new trend, and maybe they’ll start letting Paralympians shoot in the Olympics if they’re good enough.”

For now, Stutzman said, he feels blessed to be competing in the highest competition within his reach after first entering the sport a mere 2 1/2 years ago when a buddy suggested they go bow hunting. Stutzman borrowed a bow and took down a deer, and it wasn’t long before his friend suggested they compete in a tournament.

“I was like, ‘What’s an archery tournament?’?” Stutzman said. “I got hooked after that.”

Part of what attracted Stutzman to the sport was its accessibility.

“I realized that no matter what disability you had, you could compete,” Stutzman said. “Most other sports you have to be tall and fast and dunk, and there are all these stipulations to being good. But with archery, you don’t have to be any of those. Anyone could do archery and be good at it.”

Still, Stutzman has demonstrated an exceptional knack for the sport, which requires competitors to shoot arrows as close to a center target as possible. In Olympic archery, targets are 122 cm in diameter, with the center ring measuring just 12.2 cm.

Athletes stand 70 meters — or 76.5 yards — from the target. Stutzman recently set the world record for the longest accurate shot by hitting a target 230 yards away.

“If my mental game is on par, I can hang with those guys,” Stutzman said of the Olympians competing in London.

No arms at birth

Stutzman was born a healthy baby without arms in 1982 and was adopted by a family in Kalona, who initially made sure he had access to prosthetic limbs. Soon, however, Stutzman made it clear he could do without them.

“I felt they were more in the way, and I could get around without them,” Stutzman said. “I put them on the shelf, and I never really used them much.”

He was worried about becoming reliant on the arms and finding himself useless if they broke.

“So I use my feet for everything,” he said, explaining how he drives a car without modifications. “I use my right foot to steer, and my left foot runs the gas and breaks.”

Stutzman’s ability to look beyond his physical disability has been a lifelong trait. At age 16, he wanted to bow hunt with his dad and brother and — even though his parents questioned whether the bow would be a worthwhile expense — Stutzman went “halves” with his folks and worked to raise money to buy one of his own.

“I thought, ‘Why can’t I try a bow?’?” he said.

Stutzman’s first experience with a bow didn’t go so well. He didn’t shoot anything as a teenager, and the bow was stolen within the year.

He waited about a decade before getting back into the sport, but when he did, Stutzman was invited to be part of the U.S. national team and compete in the Paralympic trials.

McDonald’s bags

Since making the team, Stutzman has been invited to be a member of the Bp-sponsored Olympic and Paralympic teams, and he’ll appear on McDonald’s to-go bags.

Stutzman’s wife, parents, mother-in-law and sister will be in London to cheer him on in August. His mom, Jean Stutzman, of Kalona, said her son has taught the entire family — they have eight kids, both adopted and biological — a lot about what it means to adapt and persist.

“He never had arms, but he set out to do just about anything anyone else was doing,” Jean Stutzman said. “We have learned a lot as a family about perseverance.” 

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