Paralympic archer Lee Ford-Faherty is no stranger to doctor’s appointments, but she wasn’t prepared for the question her orthopedic surgeon asked her several months ago.
“He comes into the office and says, ‘How much do you love your sport?’ Exact words,” said Ford-Faherty, of Perry, Georgia. “I said, ‘What?’ and he said, ‘How much do you love your sport?’
“I said, ‘I love my sport. Why? What’s going on?’”
On April 11, 2005, a herniated disc left Ford-Faherty, 44, paralyzed in her left leg, the result of an old speedskating injury. She’s relies on a wheelchair part-time, uses leg braces and has undergone two spinal fusion surgeries since in the past four years. Ford-Faherty also has Crohn’s Disease and in 2014 was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a joint hypermobility disorder that affects connective tissue, as well as fibromyalgia.
Since that date nearly 10 years ago when she first became partially paralyzed, Ford-Faherty has become one of the nation’s top female recurve archers, earning not only the top ranking in her category but also No. 15 among able-bodied archers in 2014. She went to the Paralympic Games in London in 2012 after setting the goal of making it to the world’s premier competition just three years earlier, and plans to be in Rio in 2016.
She is used to living with pain and discomfort, and she also doesn’t scare easily. This is a woman who to this day includes performing with fire among her favorite activities.
Her doctor’s concerns that day in his office truly scared her, however.
He was afraid the stress of pulling the bow open and the rotation of the spine coupled with the degenerative affects of the EDS on her back could lead to far more severe damage to the spinal cord. He feared she could end up paralyzed in more than just one leg.
“I had to think, ‘Am I going to keep going?’” she said. “I decided I would. If I end up paralyzed, it’s not the end of the world. I know plenty of people who live amazing lives who are full-time wheelchair users so is it a risk? Yes. Would it be worth it? Yes, because (archery) is what gets me up and out of bed.”
Getting Ford-Faherty out of bed was exactly what a friend was hoping for when she first convinced her to go to the archery club in 2008. Ford-Faherty went bow shooting off and on with her father when she was younger, but as she got older she leaned toward activities that gave her more of an adrenaline rush, such as speedskating and performance art that involved fire.
After she was paralyzed, however, Ford-Faherty wasn’t doing much of anything.
She wasn’t performing, wasn’t belly dancing, wasn’t doing any of the things that once made her so happy.
When her friend got her to the archery club and Ford-Faherty got a bow in her hand; however, something clicked. She immediately wanted to get better and better.
In 2009, after shooting for just one year, she went to the World Archery Festival in Las Vegas, and that’s when she told coach and mentor Jim White that she wanted to go to the Paralympic Games in London in 2012.
That didn’t leave them much time, but White said that Ford-Faherty came to his house every Monday night for three years and they’d spend a couple hours shooting in his basement. Then they’d work together outdoors at the club range, and when she wasn’t doing that she was shooting off a couple hundred arrows at a target in her living room every single day.
“That’s what convinced me she could do this,” White said. “She doesn’t give up no matter what the problem is, which is unfortunately sometimes to her detriment. She’ll push when she shouldn’t, but she just doesn’t want to wait.”
In 2010, she placed second at the Arizona Cup and fifth at the World Invitational Disabled Archery Competition in Great Britain. In 2011, she placed ninth at the world championships and won the gold medal in the Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, and earned a slot for the U.S. at the 2012 Paralympic Games.
Shortly thereafter she underwent the first of her two spinal fusion surgeries, and was still recovering when she earned her place on the team that would go to London.
Ford-Faherty underwent her second spinal fusion surgery in 2013. She’ll be competing at the Arizona Cup April 7-12 and, among her other plans for the lead-up to the 2016 Games, hopes to defend her Parapan American gold medal in Toronto this summer.
And, of course, she hopes to be in Rio.
White has no doubt that she will. He also believes she’ll shoot better than she did in London, where she was eliminated before the quarterfinal round. Her mechanics have always been there, White said, but right now she’s shooting better than ever and it’s because of the development of her mental game.
“Now she’s had enough experience in big tournaments, and it’s not going to be as intimidating as it was in 2012,” White said. “I fully expect her to do much better. She’s learned how to compete rather than shoot. There’s a big difference.”
Ford-Faherty has a new back brace that helps support her spine while shooting, although she said it does hamper her shot. She can stand to shoot indoors, but has to sit when outdoors because her balance is poor and a gust of wind is enough to make her stumble or even fall.
With the 2016 Games now 17 months away, she wants to go as far as hard work will take her.
“I want to win worlds, I want to win Rio, I want to chase the able-bodied team and be up with them,” Ford-Faherty said. “As my doctor puts it, I’m type A when it comes to moving around, I always have to go and do. I don’t go anywhere near as fast as I used to, but I go out and do. Archery has been a nice balance to that adrenaline junky, too. I’ve learned to be more centered and calm and focus internally, not just go for the rush of speed or fire all around you. There’s a rush of doing well and executing the perfect shot. I found the beauty in that.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.