Though Ashlee Sheppard has had a Paralympic-eligible impairment since birth, she didn't realize the sport she loved existed at the Paralympic level until late in her college years.
Sheppard, a San Francisco native, was first inspired to try archery after seeing an advertisement for a local range in a magazine while in high school. A water polo player and swimmer at the time, Sheppard and her parents had been debating whether or not those sports were becoming too painful for someone with her particular condition.
Sheppard suffers from peripheral neuropathy, a degenerative disease that causes numbness and weakness in her extremities, from her elbows down to her hands and from her knees to her feet. The disease is hereditary – her father has it as well – and it worsens over time.
“I was born with my disability, so I've always known something was different for me,” Sheppard said. “I don’t know how I remember this, but when I was tiny, I still remember that I thought, ‘I walk different than everybody else.’ So I've been struggling with this for all of my life.”
On the archery range, though, Sheppard found a place where she felt strong, focused and in control.
She began taking lessons in high school and even purchased her own equipment, but she soon found herself busy with schoolwork and college applications. It wasn’t until Sheppard discovered an archery range near campus during her sophomore year at Occidental College in Los Angeles that she began competing more seriously. Sheppard started participating in college archery tournaments, generally as the only representative from Occidental.
At one of her tournaments, a Paralympic archer was in attendance. Sheppard says he “called her out” for walking differently.
It was then that the world of Paralympic archery opened up for her. She went to her first para-archery training camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., 2010. There, she met several Paralympic archers, each with their own unique backgrounds. Their stories inspired Sheppard and motivated her to stick with the sport despite her disease.
Now, Sheppard is headed to the World Para-Archery Championships to compete in the compound standing division. The meet is set for Nov. 1-7 in Bangkok, Thailand.
Sheppard, who majored in economics with an emphasis in business management at Occidental, now works full-time at a financial firm in San Francisco in asset management. She said finding time for elite-level training and competition alongside a career has its fair share of challenges.
She doesn’t make training easy on herself, either.
“Staying motivated and training on my own, I have to work at it,” Sheppard said. “At least for me so far, it’s never perfect. When I finally master one part of my shot, there’s something else that I need to work on, so it’s just not getting discouraged and continuing to have that motivation to keep getting better.”
Sheppard must allot time and plan her vacation days from work well in advance of her tournaments, meaning she has not been able to compete internationally as much as some of her competitors. This season, most of Sheppard’s competitions have been limited to within her home state of California, including the SoCal Showdown at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center in late June.
In August, Sheppard competed at the U.S. World Team Trials for the World Para-Archery Championships in Chula Vista, where she won the women’s compound division and earned a spot on the roster for Bangkok.
In fact, the world championships in Bangkok will be only the second international meet of Sheppard’s young career, her first having been in 2010. She will take two weeks off of work for the trip.
“My main focus was to get to this event. I had to save a lot of my vacation days for this, so I banked on making it,” Sheppard said. “So I’m excited to get there. I’m really excited to learn as much as I possibly can and ramp up my training for the next coming years.”
Sheppard said her goals for the world championships are to stay focused and keep her shot consistent.
“I think my main challenge is going to be to stay mentally strong because it’s such a big tournament. It’s not what I’m used to,” Sheppard said. “I would love to walk away and say that at least I had a calm head, all of my shots were good and I did the best I could.”
The other two U.S. women competing at worlds in Sheppard’s division, D’arce Hess and Martha Chavez, will challenge her to reach her best. For the most part, though, Sheppard cares more about earning a personal best than defeating a competitor.
“I think the three of us are all very close in skill, and hopefully we will keep pushing each other higher,” Sheppard said. “But that being said, I have always viewed archery as competing against myself, so every shoot I want to keep getting better and learning something that’s helping me.”
And while she’s not focusing on Rio 2016 just yet, she knows the possibility of representing Team USA at the Paralympic Games is out there.
“It’s hard for me to think about [Rio] realistically,” Sheppard said. “But if everything fell into place, I would absolutely make that a goal.”