After Russell Wolfe earned a bronze medal at the 2009 International Paralympic Committee Archery World Championships, the awards ceremony was held inside. The American flag was not raised above the podium and the winner’s national anthem was not played.
But the U.S. Army veteran and experienced archer was not deterred. Wolfe said he looks at the U.S. flag every day, and it always brings a smile to his face.
“Flag Day is a day to respect the country and that’s how I view it,” said Wolfe, a five-year U.S. Paralympic Archery National team member, who hopes to see his country’s flag raised when he competes at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London later this summer.
“I mean I show respect toward our country’s flag every day. But Flag Day is one day we set aside as a nation to show our support and it doesn’t matter who you are.”
Today is Flag Day, which marks the date in 1777 when Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes, and it’s a day when citizens across the United States celebrate one of the country’s most unified and iconic symbols.
Former President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation in 1916 that officially established June 14 as Flag Day. National Flag Day was also established by an Act of Congress in 1949.
But what many people don’t know is that Flag Day also celebrates the Army Birthday.
“I did know that, actually,” said Wolfe, who served in the U.S. Army from 1986-97 and retired as a Staff Sargent E6.
Wolfe, 43, has been involved in archery ever since he took his first few shots in the backyard of his family home in Pennsylvania when he was just 11. By 16, he was hunting with a bow and arrow and the sport has been a mainstay with him ever since.
“It was a way of life where I grew up in mountains of Pennsylvania,” said Wolfe, who now lives in Williamsburg, Va. “We actually hunted with a bow. Back then, it was in the school system. It was just commonplace to know how to operate a rifle or a bow an arrow. I always felt the bow gave you more of a challenge and it was a more demanding discipline. So many more variables involved.”
Wolfe was a very skilled archer before an accident left him in a wheelchair in 1996. He was actually enjoying the sport he loves — bow hunting — while near the military base in Fort Meade, Md., when the tree stand collapsed because of a mechanical defect and the safety belt he was wearing did not hold.
“It was close to a year before I even picked up a bow again,” Wolfe said. “The first time I grabbed one, I couldn’t even pull it back.”
Archery aided his recovery and before he knew it, Wolfe was invited to participate in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in 1999. He had met fellow veteran and fellow Paralympic Games teammate Chuck Lear, who encouraged Wolfe to take the next step and move up from a recreational archer to a competitive one.
The servicemen shared a common bond and it’s something Wolfe has passed on and continued with other veterans, who have returned from the battle fields abroad.
“My coaching really started with disabled children and then it moved toward service members coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Wolfe, who has coached archery on and off since 2008. “When you see their eyes light up and that ‘Aha moment’ hits, that’s what special to me. That’s when these guys realize that archery can still be a part of their life regardless of what has happened.”
Wolfe represented the United States at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, and he learned plenty from his first major international competition.
The drive to succeed and to always get that perfect shot started to hinder his progress in the sport. Since those Games four years ago, Wolfe said he has changed his mindset drastically, which has improved his performance overall.
“I’ve really improved on my mental game,” said Wolfe, who finished 29th in his division in Beijing. “Back then, I viewed it as a job, I put way too much pressure on myself and when you do that, you’re doomed to fail. Now, I’m shooting for fun. I understand it’s still a competition but it’s not life-or-death. When I take that approach, I’m much more focused.”
He’s not so concerned with scores these days but more focused on what he and his teammates describe as “getting invited to the dance.”
“That’s what we call it,” Wolfe said. “If you make it to ‘the dance,’ then you’ve already made it. It doesn’t matter where I place. I can officially say that I’m a two-time U.S. Paralympian and no one can ever take that away from me.”
Wolfe is currently training with fellow U.S. veterans Dugie Denton and Jerry Shields at a facility in Edmond, Okla. The trio will continue to hone its skills before the London 2012 Paralympic Games start Aug. 29.
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Aaron Gray is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.