Para and Paralympic Archery – Open to Anyone

Have you ever thought about making archery even harder than it already is? What if you drew and released with your mouth? If you shot sitting down? What if you couldn’t see?

For para archers these things are everyday aspects of the sport. All over the world athletes with amputations, injuries, disorders and, yes, even blindness participate in the challenging sport of para archery.

If you have a physical impairment that you refuse to let keep you from the sport you love, or if you’re a standard archer interested in the challenges and innovations of para archery, this guide is for you.

A cartoon drawing of a wheelchair bound archer and an archer without arms
Archery… but harder…

What is para archery?

Para archery includes various competitions and events for archers with physical impairments. These could be impairments that require assistive devices. Most commonly impairments affect mobility and could be the result of injury or neurodegenerative disorders like cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis. There are even classifications for visually impaired archers, a sport not for the faint of heart.

Numerous official tournaments and championships take place all over the world, and it’s even a staple of the Paralympic Games. The most recent Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 consisted of nine events: three men’s events, three women’s and three mixed teams. There were two compound bow events, one for wheelchair athletes, an open event and an open recurve-only event.

History

The modern history of para archery dates back to 1948 when Mandeville Hospital had archery events for recovering veterans from World War II. The Mandeville archery competitions eventually involved to include more sports and finally became the official Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960, featuring 400 athletes from 23 countries. Archery is at the heart of paralympic sports.

Championships and Competitions

The Paralympics might host the best-known archery competition. The current games include two classifications and events for both men and women as well as a mixed event. Great Britain leads both the gold medal count with 20 as well as the total medal count with 66. The United States, South Korea, France and West Germany round out the top five.

Para archery isn’t limited to the Paralympics, though. In fact, there are competitions all over the world. In the table below you can find info on many international tournaments, their classifications and frequency.

ChampionshipFrequency (every)ClassificationsDisabilities Competing
Paralympics4 yearsOpen Recurve
Open Compound
W1 Recurve/Compound
Amputees
Paralyzed/wheelchair users
Brain injury
Degenerative nervous disorders
Stroke
World Para Archery
Championship
2 yearsStanding Recurve
Open Recurve
Open CompoundW2 Recurve
W1 Compound
V1
V2/3
Amputees
Paralyzed/wheelchair users
Brain injury
Degenerative nervous disorders
Stroke
Visually impaired
Parapan American
Games*
4 yearsOpen Recurve
Open Compound
Amputees
Paralyzed/wheelchair users
Brain injury
Degenerative nervous disorders
Stroke
European Para Archery
Championships
4 yearsOpen Recurve
Open Compound
W2 Recurve
W1 Recurve/Compound
V2/3
Amputees
Paralyzed/wheelchair users
Brain injury
Degenerative nervous disorders
Stroke
Visually impaired
Australian Para and VI
Championships
1 yearOpen Recurve
Open Compound
W1 Recurve/Compound
V2/3
Amputees
Paralyzed/wheelchair users
Brain injury
Degenerative nervous disorders
Stroke
Visually impaired
Fazza Para Archery World
Ranking Tournament
1 yearOpen Recurve
Open Compound
W1 Recurve/Compound
Amputees
Paralyzed/wheelchair users
Brain injury
Degenerative nervous disorders
Stroke
Para Archery
European Cup
1 yearOpen Recurve
Open Compound
W1 Recurve/Compound
Amputees
Paralyzed/wheelchair users
Brain injury
Degenerative nervous disorders
Stroke
British Wheelchair Archery
Association National
Championships
(Stoke Mandeville)
1 yearStanding
W1
W2
V1
V2
V3
Amputees
Paralyzed/wheelchair users
Brain injury
Degenerative nervous disorders
Stroke
Balance disorders
Visually impaired

*Archery has been removed from the Parapan American Games in the Lima 2019 games.

Classifications

Para archery has a lot of different classifications to create a level playing field across a range of disabilities. Competitions are usually first divided into three divisions: recurve, compound and visually impaired. Within those divisions, archers can compete in the following classes.

Open

Open classifications don’t restrict athletes based on type of impairment. They might use a wheelchair or have a balance impairment that still allows them to stand with assistance.

Wheelchair 1 (W1)

Athletes in W1 have impairments in both the arms and the legs and compete from a wheelchair. They usually have multiple amputations or high level spinal cord injuries.

A wheelchair bound archer training for the Invictus games.
A wheelchair bound archer training for the Invictus games.

Wheelchair 2 (W2)

Athletes in W2 have impairment in the legs such as amputation or paraplegia. They have little to no impairment in the arms and compete seated in a wheelchair.

Visually Impaired (V1, V2, V3)

The visual impairment division is further divided into three classes based on the methods the archers use.

  • V1: Archers must wear a blindfold or blackout glasses.
  • V2/3: Archers use tactile sights and an assistant who sits or stands a meter behind the shooting line to give the archer information about arrow position and scoring.

Every competition uses a different combination of divisions and classifications. For example, the Paralympics do not feature any visually impaired classifications.

Janice Walth takes you through some blind archery techniques

Other Rules

The Target

Recurve events use a target with a 122-cm diameter that sits 70 meters from the shooting line. Compound events use a target with an 80-cm diameter that sits 50 meters from the shooting line. The targets consist of ten circles.

The Rounds

In the first round, archers usually shoot 72 arrows, 12 ends of six arrows each. There are four minutes per round.

The high scorers of the first round move on to head-to-head matches. In these matches, archers shoot 15 arrows, and the loser is eliminated.

Top Para Archery Players

Of course, para archery has its stars and legends. Take for instance the current world medal leader of the paralympic games. Paola Fantato of Italy was wheelchair-bound from a young age due to polio and went on to win eight medals–including five gold–from 1988-2004.

Neroli Fairhall is another important name in the history of para archery. She was paralyzed from the waist down as a result of a motorcycle accident. She won numerous medals and titles in several para archery competitions, but she’s most famous for being the first paraplegic to compete in the Olympic Games. She represented New Zealand in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1982.

In the most recent Paralympic Games, Great Britain took the most medals in archery, anchored by their star John Walker. He won two gold medals, one in the Men’s W1 Compound and one in the Team W1 Compound. He was thereafter appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire.

John Walker competing in the 2016 Paralympics
John Walker competing in the 2016 Paralympics

The British women’s team is especially dominant, and they took gold, silver and bronze in the 2016 Paralympic Games. Jessica Stretton, an archer with cerebral palsy, was the gold medalist. She was already well known for setting a new world record at the Fazza International Championships in Dubai.

Andre Shelby brought a gold medal home for Team USA in the Men’s Open Compound classification and is the current defending champion in that category not only in the Paralympic Games but also the Parapan American Games. He was injured in a motorcycle accident that confined him to a wheelchair.

One of the most famous para archers is Matt Stutzman. He was born without arms and as a result has learned a seemingly impossible level of dexterity with his feet, which he uses to shoot. He’s a Paralympic medalist and holds a world record for longest accurate shot in archery. He appeared in the 2013 documentary My Way to Olympia and has been cited by other archers as an inspiration.

Matt Stutzman of Team USA sets archery record for longest accurate shot

Specialist Equipment

According to the World Archery Rulebook, the following assistive devices are permitted in at least one classification of para archery:

  • Wheelchair
  • Chair/stool
  • Block
  • Body support
  • Prosthesis
  • Release aid
  • Bow bandage
  • Bow arm splint
  • Sitting arm wrist splint
  • Assistant

Devices like wheelchairs and prosthetics have to conform to specific standards, but otherwise they are usually the devices the archer uses in everyday life. Much of the other devices are special equipment only used in the sport of para archery, and since each athlete has a different impairment that must be accounted for, they usually have them specially made. Luckily, you can often do it yourself at home easily and inexpensively by modifying existing archery equipment. Here are some examples.

Mouth Tabs

For archers who can only use one arm, a mouth tab lets them draw the bowstring with their mouth. You can make one at home with only a 4mm nylon flat cord (a dog leash), fishing line, a needle and a lighter.

All you do is double the leash around the bowstring just about the nock point and sew it into the string with the fishing line.

NockOnArchery shows you how to shoot a mouth tab

Release Braces

Release braces hold a bowstring in the drawn position without the need for a hand. These come in all shapes and sizes and are specific to the archer’s needs. For example, Shaun Anderson, a member of the South African Paralympic Team, uses a brace attached to his back. He then releases the bowstring by biting down on a clothespin near his mouth.

Braces might also attach to amputated limbs or shoulders and be released by turning, specific movement or pressure.

Straps

Some para archers prefer straps over braces. They’re less rigid and easier to attach to limbs with missing parts. John Cavanagh competes in the W1 category and uses an elbow strap to draw the bowstring.

To find out more about making your own releases with mouth tabs, braces or straps you can contact experienced Paralympians or renown archery equipment manufacturers like T.R.U. Ball Archery. You can also talk to your local archery supply store to see how they can help, and don’t forget to check out our list of best bowstring releases to get started on the right track.

Upcoming Events

Right now para archers around the world are looking forward to the World Championships in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands. They’ve just finished the Fazza Ranking Tournament and the European Cup and are ready to compete for fame and glory from June 3-9.

After the World Championships, it’s time to prepare for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo. The Games will take place from August 25-September 6, 2020, during which the best para archers from around the world will try for the coveted Paralympic Gold.

The British Wheelchair Archery Association National Championships will also happen June 16. They’re the offspring of the original Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled veterans. They are open to British and international competitors.

Getting Started

A great thing about para archery is you can usually still compete in standard archery tournaments depending on the rules. You can contact your local archery clubs to see what support they offer for para archers and the opportunities you have for participating.

Archery has a well structured world organization run by World Archery. You can find your national member federation on their member associations page.

The member federation in the US is USA Archery which has clubs all over the country. They have an easy tool for finding the nearest club to where you live. There are also resources on the site for introducing your local club to para archery if it’s not already involved.

You can find similar resources and guides on the World Archery website as well as the Paralympic website.

Also consider joining forums to learn more about para archery and discuss techniques and equipment with other participants. Archers on Reddit frequently discuss para archery topics including how to make your own assistive devices. ArcheryTalk might be the most well-known dedicated archery forum, and they have specific sections devoted to para archery. Here you can find advice on getting started, training, finding equipment and everything else.

If you’ve been thinking about taking up archery, don’t let anything stop you. With the right resources, you’ll be hitting bullseyes in no time. You could be a Gold Medalist in waiting.

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