Throughout the summer, in a series called Hometown Hopefuls, NBC is spotlighting the stories of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls from all fifty states, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, as they work towards the opportunity to represent their country at the Paris 2024 Games next year. We’ll learn about their paths to their sports’ biggest stage, and the towns and communities that have been formative along the way. Visit NBCSports.com/hometownhopefuls for more stories from across America as these Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls prepare for Paris in summer 2024.
In the middle of what he called the most meaningful competition of his life, Matt Stutzman rose from his chair and yelled to a reserved crowd.
“I can’t hear no one,” he said in February 2022. “You’re witnessing history.”
Nine minutes later, Stutzman, the “Armless Archer” profiled over the last decade by HBO’s Real Sports, CBS Sunday Morning and others, won his first individual world championship.
The prize was of course special, a gold medal. But the opponent made that night in Dubai greater than the day in London in 2012, when Stutzman won a Paralympic silver medal competing against men with two arms.
In that 2022 World Championships men’s compound final, Stutzman faced Russian Aleksandr Gombozhapov in what he believes was the first time two armless archers met for a global title.
“I care more about what was being witnessed than the actual winning,” he said a year later.
As World Archery tells it: In 2003, Gombozhapov lost both arms and a leg in a train accident around age 20. After a four-year rehabilitation process, Gombozhapov eventually moved into a house for wheelchair users, got married, became a father and was asked if he wanted to try archery.
He was shown a YouTube video of Stutzman, who positions the bow with his leg and releases the arrow with his jaw. Stutzman, who was born without arms, later passed along some tips to Gombozhapov. Little did he know that they would meet in a world championship final.
That didn’t diminish Stutzman’s competitive drive.
“I’m not ready to pass the torch on just yet,” he joked.
Stutzman returned with his gold to Fairfield, Iowa, to prepare for what he hopes is a fourth Paralympics next year in Paris, and what could be his final Games. He’s been shooting arrows for the last 18 months with daily hip pain -- three on a scale of one to ten, he said in an April interview. A hip replacement is possible.
Stutzman may take a long break after Paris and then recharge for the 2028 Los Angeles Games, or he could be done altogether.
One thing that keeps him going at age 40 is the support of Fairfield, a 10,000-person city in the southeast corner of the state. Stutzman was born in Kansas City, put up for adoption by birth parents who were overwhelmed by raising a child with an impairment and taken in by a family in Kalona, Iowa. He has lived in Iowa all but a few years of his life.
Stutzman has places he can train indoors and outdoors in Fairfield, where he has three sons plus cars for his competitive hobby of drag racing. As a teen, Stutzman fought the public school system when it refused to issue him a driver’s license. He succeeded operating the pedals with his left foot and the steering wheel, gear shift and blinkers with his right.
“It’s like a giant cheerleading team,” he said of Fairfield. “They put up signs, and they’re always congratulating me in the paper and the news.”
Stutzman keeps his 2012 Paralympic silver medal in a car glove compartment. It has helped him get out of speeding tickets. But the last two Paralympics brought more stress than he would have liked.
In Rio, Stutzman was upset in the round of 16 and later noticed a crack in the nock of his final arrow and was convinced the equipment malfunction occurred before he shot it. He brought the arrow home and placed it on his shelf as a reminder.
Stutzman believed he went into the Tokyo Games as a medal contender. But his confidence vanished when he found that his bows broke in transit to Japan. This was two days before the competition began. Stutzman scrambled to patch them together with spare parts but ultimately lost in the round of 16 again.
“I got it shooting good enough that I could have still won,” he said. “My confidence in my equipment was lacking, and it showed mentally, and I just blew it.”
When Stutzman started the sport, he didn’t see any other armless archers. At the Tokyo Games, there was one other one. Now, he said at least eight from around the world are hopefuls for Paris.
The proliferation makes Stutzman’s words after winning that 2012 Paralympic medal seem prophetic.
“If I can inspire just one person then my job’s done,” he said then, according to the Telegraph. “Really, watching me, people can only say, ‘I haven’t got an excuse. I can’t say my back’s hurting, or I got a sore finger. This guy’s shooting arrows with no arms.’ I kinda hope I make everyone realize you can do whatever you want in this life if you just try.”
NBC Paralympic research contributed to this report.
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