Archer and reigning Paralympic gold medalist Jeff Fabry doesn’t know the name of the photographer who inadvertently saved his life, but he certainly is grateful.
Fabry, who will return to the Paralympic Games for the fourth time this summer in Rio de Janeiro, was on the practice field in Athens in 2004 when a photographer said he wanted to take a few shots. He’d send the pictures to Sports Illustrated, the photographer told Fabry, and they’d see what happened. Maybe one of the shots would get in the magazine.
Fabry won a bronze medal that year and he did, in fact, get his picture in the magazine, but it came with a catch. When he landed in Washington’s Dulles International Airport after the Games and called his wife to let her know he was back stateside, she told him the news about the magazine.
“I said, ‘Wow! That’s awesome!’ And she said, ‘It could be,’” said Fabry, 43, of Hanford, California. “She also said, ‘I’ve had three dermatologists call and leave messages saying there’s a spot on your neck and you need to get it looked at, because it looks like melanoma.”
His mind raced.
Fabry knew melanoma well, having lost his grandmother to that particular form of cancer a few years earlier. But a spot? What spot? He went through the airport looking for a copy of Sports Illustrated, and when he found one, he saw the picture thought, “Oh, that’s just my mole. I’ve had that for years.”
Fortunately, Fabry went with the unknown dermatologists’ advice and got it checked out because his mole did, in fact, turn out to be melanoma.
According to the American Cancer Society, the rates of melanoma have been rising for the last 30 years. They estimate that in 2016 there were will be about 76,380 new cases of melanoma diagnosed, and about 10,130 people will die because of it.
May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. The AAD says skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, and it estimates one person dies from melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer — every hour.
Fabry believes that were it not for that photographer, he’d be among the grimmest statistics.
“I’d put money on it today that if that picture wasn’t in Sports Illustrated, I’d be pushing up daisies right now, that’s how certain I am of it,” he said. “Basically, a photographer I don’t know, and a picture in a magazine I never thought I’d be in, saved my life.”
Fabry has had a clean bill of health ever since and has continued to grow as an elite W1 Paralympic archer.
Having lost an arm and a leg in a motorcycle accident at 15, Fabry once believed he’d never shoot an arrow again. Years after the accident, however, Fabry still loved to hunt and fish as he always did, and he realized if he could find a way to shoot a bow, his deer hunting season could last longer. So he took a strip of material from a pair of blue jeans and tied it to an arrow to use as a pull tab.
“I haven’t looked back since, and that was 1998,” he said.
Fabry continues to shoot the arrow using his teeth, although the tab is now made from a nylon dog leash.
After his experience in Athens, he returned to the Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008 and ended up with a nearly identical result, winning the bronze medal despite having higher expectations. Both times John Cavanagh of Great Britain knocked him out in the semifinal round.
In London in 2012, Fabry met Cavanagh — competing in his home country — in the quarterfinals and knew if he didn’t get past him this time he could go home with nothing. Fabry indeed won and moved into the semifinal match against Canada’s Norbert Murphy, though he ran into adversity once again when he dropped his bow and the string derailed. The line judge allowed him to get his backup bow, and Fabry persevered to advance to the gold-medal match.
There he defeated the Czech Republic’s David Drahoninsky to give the United States its first Paralympic individual title in archery since 1984.
Fabry is now preparing to defend his gold medal in Rio.
Despite the added pressure that may come with being the title holder, Fabry said from his point of view, nothing’s different heading into this Paralympic Games than in previous years.
“Yeah, I’m the reigning gold-medal winner and I get the hype that comes with that, but I look at Rio as another tournament and I just have to get prepared, put on a good show and represent the U.S. well,” Fabry said. “I know what my job is, and I know what outcome I want to have. I just have to work and make it happen.”