Stutzman says inspiring other armless archers “better than winning”

Piotr van Montagu, Matt Stutzman, Aleksandr Gombozhapov at Dubai 2022

Matt Stutzman owns the phrase ‘Armless Archer’.

Back in 2016, he told us what he found, before he’d started his career, when he searched online for the phrase ‘how to shoot with no arms’.

“There was nothing,” he said.

Stutzman had to develop his own techniques, his own custom equipment, his own way of shooting. This involved holding the bow with his right foot and triggering the release with his jaw.

Shortly afterwards, a then-unknown Stutzman took a silver medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Over the past 10 years, his archery technique, equipment and profile has grown immeasurably. He was featured in the International Paralympic Committee’s Netflix movie Rising Phoenix and has been one of the faces of the last two Paralympics. And that same internet search for ‘how to shoot with no arms’ now brings up 108,000,000 hits on Google.

But one thing which has grown most significantly is Stutzman’s influence, so much so that at this year’s World Archery Para Championships in Dubai, he’s no longer ‘the Armless Archer’. He’s one of three archers without arms, alongside Belgium’s Piotr Van Montagu and Aleksandr Gombozhapov, who is representing the Russian Archery Federation at this event.

Belgian 'armless archer' Piotor Van Montagu

Van Montagu appeared at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, the second archer born without arms to make it to the pinnacle of para archery competition, and finished ninth, quickly becoming a name in Belgium.

Gombozhapov hasn’t made his Paralympic debut yet. But he’s passionate about following in Stutzman’s footsteps.

His road to archery has been a little different. It can be traced back to 2003, when he lost both arms and a leg in a train accident.

“At that moment I didn't think I would do any sport,” he said. 

“My rehabilitation process began in 2003 and lasted until 2007. In 2017, I went to a house for people with disabilities [the Erzhena Budaeva Home for Wheelchair Users] and there I started another life, eventually marrying my wife and, in 2009, having my first child.”

“At that house some people practised archery and in 2019 they asked me if I wanted to try,” he explained. “My neighbours and friends shot and encouraged me. I liked that.”

“Then they showed me a video of Matt Stutzman on YouTube.”

The rest is history.

Gombozhapov (RUS) in practise mode at Dubai 2022

“It actually makes me feel pretty good,” said Stutzman when told of the influence he had on his now-competitor. “I saw him for the first time here and I realised that he is very similar to how I began: the way he sets up his bow, the way he did his release.”

“To make the sport better you have to make an influence on people,” added the 39-year-old.

“To see that we have people who have no arms that are coming to shoot archery now, I almost feel like my work is kind of done. It’s never done, but it’s almost done. That’s why I do what I do. It’s an amazing feeling. Better than winning.”

Stutzman took bronze at the last world championships and is still searching for his first champion crown. He will face Van Montagu in the third round of eliminations on Wednesday afternoon and, should they both keep winning, potentially Gombozhapov in the final. The latter, appearing in his first championships, is fearless.

“I never thought it would go so fast, it’s happening so fast,” said Gombozhapov, reflecting on his rise to the world stage. “I didn’t think I would ever shoot with amazing Paralympians, it’s great. I have not shot for long, just two-and-a-half years.”

Reflection is great, but that’s for later. These talented para athletes have a competition to focus on.

“The more that I see [armless archers competing], the more excited I get,” said Stutzman. “However, the more competitive side of me still wants to be the best ‘armless archer’. My goal is to win the whole thing and that’s what I came here to do.”

Photographs: Dubai Club for People of Determination / Yahya Essa
Quotes: Antoni Cichy