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Archer Eric Bennett Engineers New Approach To Winning

By Dave Royse | Sept. 10, 2015, 2:45 p.m. (ET)

Eric Bennett competes in men's individual recurve archery at the London 2012 Paralympic Games at The Royal Artillery Barracks on Sept. 3, 2012 in London.

Paralympic archer Eric Bennett has a new technique, a new mental approach and a new world championship medal.

Soon enough, he'll probably also have a new ringtone on his phone. 

In the lead up to the London 2012 Paralympic Games, Bennett had the NBC Olympic theme, “Bugler's Dream,” as his ringtone. He finished fourth in the individual competition, and then changed the ringtone. 

"I think it's time to change it back for Rio," Bennett said. 

Bennett's confidence is high following his win at last month’s World Archery Para Championships in Donaueschingen, Germany. He didn't perform very well in the seeding competition and ended up as an eighth seed, giving him a tough road to the final. But he got there, defeating top-seeded Bato Tsydendorzhiev of Russia on the way, and upset China's Shi Xu Cheng 6-4 in the men’s open recurve category, vaulting Bennett into the role of a favorite for the podium at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. 

In the gold-medal match, Xu Cheng put up three nines in the last set. Bennett hit a nine, a 10, and then got the eight he needed to take the match. 

"It's a big confidence booster," said Bennett. And now heading into Rio, "the ultimate goal is the gold medal." 

Bennett’s performance earned Team USA a quota spot at the Rio 2016 Games, but now he must prepare for next year’s U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for Archery, where he will attempt to fill that quota spot. 

He is in the midst of a total overhaul of how he shoots and how he approaches the mental part of a sport where that aspect of the game is so critical. 

Bennett, whose right arm was amputated after a car accident when he was a teenager, shot in London using a mechanical release attached to a shoulder harness. But after those Games, the rules were changed and Bennett had to find a new approach. He petitioned to be able to use a mouth tab to release the arrow, which was approved. He had used his mouth back when she shot a compound bow, but he only started seriously practicing the new technique with a recurve bow a few months before the world championships. 

"I'm still trying to figure it out," Bennett said. "I'm still trying to perfect it." 

If he's winning while "trying to figure it out," who knows what he'll do once he gets it down. But he's pretty much on his own – there’s not really anyone who can coach Bennett on the technique. 

"What I'm doing right now is new to everybody in the entire world," Bennett said. 

He's one of the only recurve archers in the top levels of Paralympic archery who has one arm. Most have lower body disabilities - for example Xu Cheng uses a wheelchair. Another American athlete, Matt Stutzman, who was born without arms, uses his feet and mouth, but competes in the compound bow division. 

Coming up with fixes comes naturally to Bennett - who teaches high school engineering in Surprise, Arizona. 

"It's right up my alley," Bennett said. "I like to solve problems. It's kind of been my whole archery career. I designed the release mechanism (he used to use) for my shoulder. It combines physics and engineering." 

It's not just the mechanical part of launching the arrow Bennett is changing. He's taking a whole new mental approach. 

Trying to calm the body, to create stillness by blocking out noise is the conventional way of preparing to shoot for most high-level archers. And that's what Bennett has always done. But this summer, at a competition in the Czech Republic, Bennett spent a lot of energy blocking everything out - only to perform badly.   

Then, at the world championships, there was a buzz around his performance as he moved toward the final. And it was hard to block it out. 

"Our team was very loud," Bennett said. Rather than fight it, he "embraced the hype... embracing the crowd, embracing the pressure instead of trying to avoid it." 

And he found it seemed to help. 

"As I heightened myself up, I kind of shot better," Bennett said. "My approach was more along the lines of trying to get hyped up rather than being calm and peaceful." 

Bennett is also an archery coach and doesn't think his new approach will work for everyone. He's surprised it seems to be working for him. 

"If you'd asked me six months, a year ago, I would have said, that's not the best approach," Bennett said. "In a different way, it helped me focus. For me, that was a definitely a different mental approach. 

"And now," he said, "I've got a year to continue working on that." 

Dave Royse is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and a former reporter for the Associated Press and News Service of Florida. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Eric Bennett