We are taught through fairytales that good can prevail in the most unlikely of circumstances. Fairytales create heroes to be examples for society, and these fairy stories are passed from generation to generation. We are also taught that fairytales are not real and that miracles do not happen – colloquially, a fairytale has come to mean any old far-fetched story.
Have you ever sat and watched the Olympic or Paralympic Games and felt truly inspired? Ever thought “I could do that!”? In 2012, John Walker was at home watching the action from London when he came across Matt Stutzman – the legendary American known as ‘The Armless Archer’ – firing arrows with his feet.
John, who is in a wheelchair following a motorbike accident earlier the same year, was utterly inspired and incredibly, just four years later and only three years after shooting the first arrow of his entire life, John is a multiple world record holder and double Paralympic gold medallist. It is the sort of fairytale that only sport could write.
Having enjoyed the life-affirming thrill of meeting Spencer and Neil – ahem – John rounded off an extraordinary 2016 by being awarded an MBE in the New Year’s Honours list. We were privileged to speak to him recently about that momentous year, his life before archery and the journey upon which he has now embarked.
KUDOS: What was life like for John Walker before your accident? Were you particularly sporty?
John: I had a very successful offshore survey career as a Senior Geotechnical Equipment Operator, and also as a Party Chief, and have had the pleasure of working all around the world. I was not a particularly sporty person at all.
So how did archery come to your attention?
I was hoping to go back to work in the office as a health and safety officer. But unfortunately I could not do some of the work because of my disabilities as a result of my accident, and I was still recovering at home. I was watching the Paralympics in London 2012 and I watched an American chap called Matt Stutzman. He was born without any arms and he shoots a bow with his feet, which was amazing to me. So I thought “well I used be a very good shot in the army, and if he can do it with no arms then I must be able to do it one handed!” – and that’s where it all started for me.
When watching sport, we’ve all daydreamed about emulating those sporting heroes, but for 99.9% of us, those daydreams never come close to being realised. When you decided to give archery a go after seeing Matt Stutzman in action, what were your goals? Was it just to have a bit fun and enjoy the sport or were your ambitions loftier than that?
At first it was just to see if I could shoot a bow as I found there really was not much help out there. So I did a bit of research before making my first release aid/harness – which was made from a neoprene shoulder support and had webbing straps to go over the push handles of my wheelchair to take the load away from my right shoulder. Although from using it it became apparent that it was against the rules, but it got me shooting! I began to realise that I was quite good at it and it all just went on from there really.
When did you realise you were genuinely bloody good at archery and you could compete at a very high level?
It was at the W1 initiative training program – the head Archery GB para coach Mike Peart started as there was a shortage of W1s in the UK, and I just progressed from there and changed my shooting harness as I got better!
You went to Rio for the Paralympics with a few medals and titles under your belt. What was the whole Paralympic experience like? Describe if you can the feeling a) of simply being involved in such an amazing event and b) competing and *winning* gold medals? It must have felt like a dream.
We all went to Rio expecting the worst as the Olympic archery team and press made it sound quite bad out in Rio! But to my amazement it wasn’t – it was better than I had hoped for, and I felt humbled by the fact I was out there to represent my country.
The feeling was surreal – I just kept winning until I got through to the final against the then W1 number 1 David Drahoninsky of the Czech Republic. I knew it was going to be a battle, and just had to remind myself I was in the best form of my life going into Rio. It all came down to the last end as we were level at that point. So David shot first and we exchanged loads of 9s and 10s. I needed a 9 or higher to win and I shot a 10. What a way to finish – I finished 10,10,10! It was an absolute honour to go up on the podium with the Union Jack being raised for me, and the national anthem ringing out – all just for me! I was trying to sing it but I was fighting back tears of joy!
Matt Stutzman must be aware of your story and your achievements? Have you spoken to him about it and what is your relationship like? They say ‘never meet your heroes’ but I’m guessing you would say otherwise?
Matt is an absolutely lovely guy – he is known as the inspirational archer. We are good friends now. I am lucky that all of the international para archers are like one big family, we all get on and respect one another.
Do you feel under any extra pressure now you’re a Paralympic champion? What are your goals for 2017 and beyond?
I don’t feel under any pressure as I have decided to move categories from W1 to W2, since I achieved so much in winning all the major competitions – as well as holding 6 of the 8 world records! So I feel it’s time for a new challenge – it’s going to be tougher but I certainly feel it’s a challenge that I can rise to.
So now you are John Walker MBE – how did you find out you’d been awarded the MBE?
I found out that the Prime Minister had nominated me for the MBE about a month before the New Years Honours list was announced. I had to keep it quiet that whole time – and that was very hard I can tell you!
Your story is incredible and genuinely inspirational. Archery has helped you realise dreams way beyond most people’s imagination – what is it about archery that you love and how would you encourage others to give the sport a try?
For me it’s the challenge. It’s not an easy sport at all, and that really drives me on! The day I stop enjoying it will be the day I stop. I would recommend and urge anyone to give it a try as you can take part at any age and it’s not too costly. Just get in touch with your local archery club and give it a try you can find out more at archerygb.org
We’d like to thank John very much for his time, and wish him the very best of luck for 2017 and beyond. We suspect he’s not quite finished with the gold medals and world records yet.
KUDOS IS PASSIONATE ABOUT ARCHERY AT ALL LEVELS
KUDOS supports and encourages people from all walks of life to get into archery at any level, and to support your local grassroots archery club.
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