Kevin Polish, pictured at the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials - Archery, will compete in his first Paralympic Games in September.
A year ago, K.J. Polish had no idea he’d be going to this September’s Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
It would have been a pipe dream, an idea as distant as the beach at Ipanema.
Polish, 33, grew up as one of the best young archers in the United States. He was a Pennsylvania kid who started firing arrows at age 3. Archery was a focal point of his life. He hunted with his bow in the woods all around his home in Carmichaels, worked at his dad’s archery shop and competed — and won — in national and international tournaments.
Even a car accident in 1999 that left him paralyzed from the chest down didn’t stop him. He just adapted to shooting from a wheelchair and continued to be among the nation’s best. In 2005 he was on the U.S. team that won a gold medal at the world championships.
But as 2015 was coming to an end, Polish hadn’t shot competitively at the elite level in almost five years. A series of health issues kept him on the sideline. First it was diabetes and its complications. Then, last year, he was told he had bladder cancer.
“I was just like, ‘Wow,’ ” he recalls thinking. “Couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. I was messed up for like four or five months just thinking about it.”
But in early December, final tests revealed he was cancer free. Suddenly, a cloud lifted. Right then he decided to start living, and that meant competing.
“It just hit me, ‘Man, I need to start shooting my bow again,’ ” he said.
He began seriously practicing, worked through some temporary soreness — his muscles weren’t used to the exertion — and entered a tournament in January, where he finished in the top 10 of the pro class.
It was the start of an unexpected journey. Over the next six months, Kevin “K.J.” Polish proved he could still shoot with the nation’s best.
In late June at the final of three U.S. Paralympic Team Trials events, he finished first in the compound bow division to earn his ticket to the Paralympics.
But, he’s not celebrating.
“It’s hard for me to show emotion,” he said. He went into the final round of the trials totally focused on winning, and that’s the same way he feels as he gets ready for Rio.
“When I get one of those medals around my neck, then we can smile,” he said. “My journey’s not over yet, it’s just starting.”
When he began competing again, Polish admits the Paralympics weren’t even a target.
It wasn’t until March, when Polish was competing in the National Field Archery Association Indoor National Championships in Louisville, Kentucky, that one of his sponsors suggested he try to qualify for the Paralympics. Told the first round of qualifying was at the Arizona Cup in April, Polish remembers saying, “Wow, that’s kind of close.”
But he looked into it, went through the verification and qualification paperwork and started preparing, spending hours shooting outdoors to get ready.
When he arrived at the event, however, he found that his wheelchair wasn’t configured to correct specifications, so he got a hacksaw, drill and some screws, worked on it in his hotel room and got it good to go. Polish finished second in the first trial.
“After that I kept getting stronger,” he said. “Each tournament I went to I learned a little bit from it.”
Polish went to the second trials at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, in May, winning his division and earning enough points to go to the third step of the trials in the lead.
In June at Chula Vista in the third round of trials, Polish moved through a qualification round, then finished first in the final to clinch his spot for compound bow on the archery team for Rio. He finished with 46 total points, ahead of Andre Shelby (31.5) and Matthew Stutzman (29).
Before the final, Polish says he upped his practice schedule. He shot in the heat, the wind and every condition that came along. Going into Round 3 of the trials, he felt ready.
At Chula Vista, he was sharp. Even the much-quicker format didn’t faze him. He just focused on hitting the center of his targets.
“As long as you keep your mind strong and you have your self confidence you can do anything,” he said.
People in the little town of Carmichaels in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania have been excited Polish is going to the Games.
As Polish spoke to a reporter on the phone recently, he was autographing targets for customers at KJ’s Pro Archery in Carmichaels. These days, too, several people a day are coming out to watch him shoot during his three- to four-hour practice sessions.
Recently, he shot in pouring-down rain, setting up a little tent to keep on going. He’s putting in the work to make certain he can take his best shot at a medal.
“I want to shoot on the bad days and good days,” he said. “I want to shoot every day. You learn a lot more doing that. You learn to deal with adversity.”
Adversity, of course, is something K.J. Polish has overcome many times.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.