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Already Fighting For Her Life, Pushing Back Paralympics May Cost Military Vet Lia Coryell Her Shot

By Karen Rosen | March 25, 2020, 4:24 p.m. (ET)

Lia Coryell is a 2016 Paralympic archer who, already in palliative care for multiple sclerosis, will aim to extend her career for a shot at the Tokyo Games in 2021.


Paralympic archer Lia Coryell battles progressive multiple sclerosis every day.

She was confident she could make it to the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, but postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic means that her body may not allow her to train for 2021.

“It is very iffy,” Coryell said. “In that way, yes, it can be heartbreaking, but it’s not going to kill me not to go.

“It’s been a stretch to get me this far. I am not in good shape. Can I shoot another year? I don’t know, but I’m going to try because that’s what we do in America, right? Because if you give up every time things get hard, well, first of all, I probably wouldn’t be alive. Second of all, this country would not be where it is.

“So, in the spirit of patriots and Para patriots, let’s do this. We know how to do this. We know how to make a comeback. We know how to work together.”

Despite the repercussions for her, the 55-year-old Army veteran welcomed the decision Tuesday to postpone the Games, which were due to start in late August.

“Being in limbo I think is worse,” said Coryell. “I respect their decision, and I think that they’re working for the greater good of actually the entire planet.”

Cancellation, she said, “would have been the end of the road for me.”

And yet, Coryell is running out of road. 

“Is it disappointing? Absolutely,” she said. “We have time, money, resources, everything is wrapped up in this, but I think maybe Paralympians think a little differently – at least the ones I know. A lot of Paralympians are injured later in life, so we’ve already faced death. We’ve already been in a position where we didn’t know if we were going to live or die, especially those of us that are military. And it kind of changes your perspective.”

Coryell joined the Army her senior year of high school and jokes that she is probably “this country’s oldest private. She had difficulty with balance and coordination, couldn’t safely fulfill her military duties and was medically retired at age 19. Coryell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which worsened a few years ago, requiring her to use a wheelchair.

She did not pick up a compound bow until she was in her 50s. Coryell discovered archery at a sports-clinic camp for wounded veterans and after just 14 months of training qualified for the Rio Games in the W-1 category, which is for archers with a physical disability in both their upper and lower body. Coryell is the only female W-1 archer in the country.

This week Coryell was supposed to be qualifying her country for Tokyo at the Para Pan American Championships in Monterrey, Mexico.

“It is a bummer, because it snowed last night in northwest Wisconsin,” Coryell said Tuesday, “but it is what it is, so I’ll just shoot my 4 meters and figure it out.”

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Because she can’t go to a range, Coryell has been shooting arrows down the hallway of her 800-square foot apartment.

“One of the guys on our team came up with an algorithm,” she said. “You put in how far you’re shooting and it will generate a target. So looking through your scope, the view is the same.”

How has she done? “Good!” Coryell said, adding with a laugh, “I just had to get a little spackle for one hole. It’s a good thing my arrows are little. We won’t tell the landlord that."

However, Coryell added, “We shoot 50 meters, so we can practice drills all day long, but until you get out in the sun and the wind and the shade and the shadows, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Coryell hasn’t been out of her apartment for nearly three weeks. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease, so she is on medication that suppresses her immune system, making her more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“My son Joe has been here and my niece and nephew,” Coryell said, “but otherwise the doc said, ‘Nobody in, nobody out. If you want to live though this, Lia, this is what you need to do.’ We’re talking life and death, not even Olympics, Paralympics, competing…

“If I die, because I didn’t do what I was supposed to do, there’s zero chance of being on the podium.”

At the Rio Games, Coryell placed fourth in the W-1 mixed team with Jeff Fabry. Individually, she reached the quarterfinals with a personal best score, losing to the eventual silver medalist.

As the oldest archer on her team and one of the oldest in the Paralympic movement, Coryell saw Tokyo as her chance to medal.

“I have seriously been training, and putting in the money and the time and equipment to do it,” she said. “I think it saddens me more than anything. I really, really want to be there, I really do.

“Because I’m not going to live a long life. I’m not. That’s just the way it is. I mean I’m already in palliative care. My legacy is to show people when you think you have nothing left in the tank and you do it anyway.”

Coryell said there is no chance of remission. “They have some new drugs, and they’ve already told me, ‘It’s too late for you, Lia,’ but they don’t know me, and they don’t know this patriot spirit that has got me though my entire life.

“Just tell people, ‘We can get through this.’ If anything, it will make us stronger as a team and as a nation.”

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Lia Coryell