Armless Archer Matt Stutzman Describes How He Shoots A Bow — And Wins Medals

Sep 7, 2012

American Paralympian Matt Stutzman won the silver medal in archery this week, a feat he accomplished despite being born without arms. In the men's compound open final, he was narrowly beaten by Finland's Jere Forsberg, who has the use of both arms.

In the gold medal match, Forsberg fired a perfect 10 on his final arrow to avoid a shoot-off with Stutzman.

The Paralympics have helped Stutzman, who is from Fairfield, Iowa, become something of a celebrity, thanks to his competitive spirit and his refusal to let his talents go to waste.

And despite many reports to the contrary, Stutzman tells All Things Considered co-host Melissa Block, "I actually don't use my teeth at all." Instead, he uses his mouth only to guide the release onto the string.

Like many of his wheelchair-using rivals, Stutzman shoots from a seated position. He uses his left foot to put the arrow in place, then he pushes the compound bow away with his right foot and pulls the arrow back with a release aid that's strapped to his body.

"There is a gentleman on the team, he actually bites onto the bow string and pulls back with his teeth to shoot the bow," Stutzman says. "And I like my teeth a lot. So that's why I came up with the idea of using a release."

Here's how he describes the process, after picking up an arrow with his left foot and putting it on the bow's string:

"After I get the arrow onto the string, I kind of cross my legs, almost 'gentleman-style,' as you can say it," Stutzman tells Melissa. "And what that allow me to do is, it brings the string close enough that I can actually kind of bend down, and hook my release aid, which is on my right shoulder, onto the string."

The release is on a belt that wraps around his body and over his shoulder. Stutzman says the belt was modified from a tree stand that a hunter would use. The release aid, which is one any other archer might use, has a trigger that rests against his jaw.

"Once I get anchored, and I'm looking down the sights... when I'm ready to fire, I just kind of move my jaw slightly backwards," he says. "The release is set really light, it's almost like the pressure it takes you to click on a mouse."

Still, that doesn't mean it's an easy process. "When I push that away from my chest, that's 60 pounds," he says. "That's a lot of weight."

This is the first Paralympics for Stutzman, whose unique shooting style — and skill — gave him something of an air of hype as he traveled to London. He is also the Guinness World Record-holder for the longest accurate shot, a mark of 230 yards that he set in 2011.

In London, Stutzman wasted no time in living up to expectations, as he dominated the qualifying round to finish first by 12 points. And he says he was excited to compete in the tournament.

"When I actually got out there, I just kind of tell myself that this is the one tournament in the world that you're not out there shooting for yourself anymore. You're shooting for your country, all your friends, your family," Stutzman says.

After winning his silver medal, Stutzman said that he "loved" his highly competitive match against Forsberg. And he told reporters he hoped his performance might inspire others.

"If I can inspire just one person then my job's done. 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,'" Stutzman said in The Telegraph. "I kinda hope I make everyone realize you can do whatever you want in this life if you just try."

Stutzman says that he wanted to try archery after seeing his father and brother going out hunting with their bows. It didn't seem fair to him that he was left out. So he made a deal with his father.

"I did odd jobs around the farm to pay for that bow," Stutzman says. And once he got it, there was just one more hurdle: figuring out how to shoot it with his feet.

"If you Google 'how to teach a guy without arms how to shoot,' you will not find that," Stutzman says. "I mean, you can find anything on Google. But you just can't find that.

"That's the one thing on Google that does not exist?" Melissa asks.

"That's right," Stutzman says — before adding, "Well, it does now."

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At the Paralympic Games in London, 29-year-old Matt Stutzman of Fairfield, Iowa, won a silver medal in archery. And here's the remarkable thing: Stutzman has no arms. That's right. He medaled in archery without arms, competing against athletes who do have them. And he joins me from London to explain how he does it. Matt Stutzman, congratulations. That's great.

MATT STUTZMAN: Thank you. And also thank you for having me.

BLOCK: You bet. Well, I've been watching videos of you shooting, and I wonder if you can explain the mechanics of how you do this. You have a harness around your torso, right?

STUTZMAN: Yes. I have a belt, basically, from a tree stand safety harness, and it goes, basically, around my chest. And then there is a release or a mechanical aid that goes over my right shoulder. If you are an archer, I can put it on your wrists, and you could use that release to shoot your own bow.

BLOCK: Aha. And how are you picking up the arrow? How are you getting them into the bow?

STUTZMAN: So I use my left foot to pick up the arrows from the ground or pull them out of the quiver, and then I use while I'm holding the arrow in my left foot, I kind of guide it onto the bow with my right foot as well. It's kind of like a two-footed job to put an arrow on the bow.

BLOCK: And it looks like you're stretching out the tension in your bow as you extend your leg, right?

STUTZMAN: Yes. That is correct. So when I - after I get the arrow onto the string, I kind of cross my legs, almost gentleman-style, as you can say it. And what that allows me to do is it brings the string close enough that I can actually kind of bend down and hook my release aid, which is on the right shoulder, onto the string. So once I do that, then I sit up, and then I just push my right foot away from my chest.

BLOCK: And then how do you release the arrow?

STUTZMAN: The release aid has a trigger, almost kind of like a gun of some sort. And that actually goes underneath my right jaw. So once I get anchored, I just kind of move my jaw slightly backwards. That's all the pressure it takes for me to make the bow shoot.

BLOCK: How did you start doing archery in the first place, and how did you figure out how to do it without arms?

STUTZMAN: I grew up always looking for challenges, and I'm the kind of guy who sees a challenge, and I have to go after it. And so when I was younger, my dad and my brother, they would, you know, they would go out hunting with their bows. And I was like, that's not fair. You know, I want to do that.


STUTZMAN: And so I got myself a bow. I worked a deal with my dad, and he purchased me a bow. And I did odd jobs around the farm to pay for that bow, and then I essentially had to teach myself how to shoot. You know, great example, the guy is holding the bow with his right arm. So I would hold out the bow with my right foot, and I knew in my head I would think that my foot was his arm, and I would just try to mimic him exactly.

BLOCK: Matt, I was reading a little bit about you. You were born without arms. You're adopted when you were 13 months old, and your mom says they never modified the house for you because, as she put it, the world outside has no modifications.

STUTZMAN: Yeah. It was amazing because, of course, as parents, you always want to help your kid out. Even with my boy, I always want to help him out all the time. But I can see it would be especially hard for them, you know, adopting a child that has no arms and struggles a lot to just figure out how to live life and always trying to want to help me. So they've always taught me to try to figure it out on my own first and really give it 100 percent. And even if I couldn't figure it out, then they would help me, but it wouldn't be just like let me do it for you.

It was, OK, let's sit down together and now let's put our both foreheads together and try to figure out how to overcome what you have to do. And it worked out great because, you know, now my house is not modified at all. My car is a regular car. There's no modifications to it at all.

BLOCK: Driving, surely, with your feet.

STUTZMAN: Yes. I use my left foot for the gas and brake, and my right foot for the steering wheel.

BLOCK: That's - it's a remarkable thing to think about, but I'm sure it's not remarkable in any way for you.


BLOCK: It's just what you've always done.

STUTZMAN: It's my everyday thing. You know, I just do that every day, you know? I have a good sense of humor. So even though I have a regular car, I'm sitting in a parking lot, and a guy comes up and says, I just realized you have no arms, and I wanted to know how you started your car. And I said, well, check this out. I got a special car. It was modified just for me. And I had my foot down by the key where he couldn't see it, and I go, car on. And then I turned it, and it goes vroom.


STUTZMAN: But he didn't see my feet move at all, right? So he's thinking I've got like this supercar, like, that could start by itself. And he's like, so does your car drive by itself too? I'm like, this was a specially made car. It - you don't even have to use your hands to drive this one.


BLOCK: It gets them every time, right?

STUTZMAN: Yeah. So it's pretty funny.

BLOCK: Well, Matt Stutzman, congratulations on your medal and thanks a lot for talking to us.

STUTZMAN: No problem. Thank you very much for having me.

BLOCK: Matt Stutzman, who's armless, he won a silver medal in archery at the Paralympic Games in London. He also holds the Guinness World Record for the longest accurate shot: 230 yards. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.