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Andre Shelby Made History As First Black U.S. Paralympic Archer, But That Was Never The Plan

By Marc Lancaster | Feb. 19, 2021, 9:47 a.m. (ET)

Andre Shelby shoots at the 2017 World Archery Para Championships on Sept. 17, 2017 in Beijing, China.

 

Before the day that altered the course of Andre Shelby’s life, he had at least a vague idea of what the future would hold. 

Shelby had just re-enlisted for what he expected to be his final two years in the U.S. Navy, which he had joined immediately after graduating from high school in 1985. Stationed at Little Creek, near Norfolk, Virginia, he oversaw the cranes, forklifts and other heavy gear aboard his ship and planned to follow that path as a heavy equipment operator once he retired and entered civilian life. 

Those plans disappeared in an instant as Shelby rode a friend’s motorcycle through an apartment complex one weekend day in 2004. As he swerved to avoid a car backing out of a parking spot, he lost control of the bike and went airborne. The motorcycle smashed into him, severing his spinal cord and leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. 

In the days immediately after the accident, he said, “I was just in the dark about everything. I guess I kind of had a little breakdown at that point.”

Eventually, sports helped him find a path forward in a way he never could have imagined. By 2016, he was atop a podium in Rio after winning a Paralympic gold medal in archery, a sport he had never tried before his injury, crowned the best in the world in a competition he hadn’t even been aware of before the accident.

Growing up in Indiana, Shelby played sports year-round, but football was where he really stood out. He played all over the field for Jeffersonville High, spending time as a tight end, kicker and running back at various points, and was named an all-conference defensive lineman his senior year. 

That kind of versatility foreshadowed his introduction to adaptive sports at the Veterans Administration hospital in Tampa where his recovery began. Hospital staff repeatedly urged him to explore the sports program administered by the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and he eventually heeded their advice, participating in everything from softball to table tennis to billiards. 

“Somebody at one point said, ‘Try it. If you like it, keep doing it as recreational. If you don’t like it, you can say you did it and just keep moving on,’” Shelby said. “So that was pretty much the whole concept whenever I tried something.”

His mind opened by that experience, Shelby paid attention when Para archer Jerry Shields demonstrated his sport during a similar weekly program a few years later at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida. Before that day, Shelby had never picked up a bow in his life, but something about it struck a chord. 

“It was pretty challenging, and it was something you had to do — it wasn’t as a team,” he said. “There was just something about, I’m able to do this, and just to have fun with it, and the technology of the bows, how they work — once you think you’ve learned one thing, there’s a thousand other things you need to learn about it.”

We’re always thinking we can shoot better. What can I do to get better? It’s a never-ending process.

Andre Shelby, Para Archery

Shelby kept shooting, and Shields eventually encouraged him to begin entering local tournaments, then brought him to some events outside Florida. 

“I had no clue what I was doing,” said Shelby, “but I was getting better.” 

By 2012, he was confident enough to enter the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for the London Games, but quickly found he was “nowhere near ready” to compete at the international level. That was when he truly dedicated himself to his craft. He studied videos, read more about the sport, sought out various coaches for advice, and began shooting 300 to 400 arrows a day. 

That work paid off when he made the U.S. team for the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games, his first major international tournament, and beat countryman Matt Stutzman to win gold in the compound open. Two weeks later, Shelby joined with Stutzman and Ben Thompson to take gold in the compound open team competition at the world championships in Germany. At the same tournament, Shelby pushed two-time Paralympian Alberto Simonelli of Italy to a shoot-off in the individual event quarterfinals before falling. But the pair would soon meet again with even higher stakes. 

That showdown came the following year in Rio, after Shelby rallied at the last stage of the trials to take the third and final spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team. That achievement alone was historic, as he became the first Black archer to compete for Team USA in the Paralympic Games. 

After arriving in Brazil, Shelby focused on his mental preparation. He traded texts with U.S. teammates back home like Jonathan Mize and Joe Bailey, who helped boost his confidence by reminding him that he deserved to be there. 

“You have a thousand things running through your mind,” he said. “From Day 1, just walking through in my mind, ‘If I get to this point, what is going to happen?’ Just running every scenario. So even before we started shooting qualifications, I was thinking about the process the whole time.”

Shelby placed 12th in the ranking round, but once individual matches began, he just kept winning. That ultimately led to a rematch with Simonelli in the final, and a 10 on the final arrow made Shelby a Paralympic gold medalist a couple months shy of his 50th birthday. 

Though he said he didn’t immediately turn his focus to Tokyo, he already was looking ahead. 

“We’re always thinking we can shoot better,” he said. “What can I do to get better? It’s a never-ending process.” 

That’s a mantra Shelby is happy to convey to the younger archers who occasionally reach out to him for advice. 

Among his pupils in recent years is Gabriel George, a fellow Jacksonville resident and Navy veteran who lost the use of his right arm in a motorcycle accident. He is also Black, a rare exception among the archers Shelby has encountered at tournaments most of his career. 

“There’s only really a handful so far, and usually we run across each other by accident, ‘Oh, you shoot? Yeah, I do, too.’ And we kind of go from there,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy, to have that feeling that you’re the only one out there the majority of the time, that’s kind of daunting.” 

While Shelby would like to see the sport continue to diversify, particularly when it comes to welcoming Para athletes, his primary focus is on preparing himself to compete as the rescheduled Tokyo Games draw closer after COVID-19 derailed many of his 2020 plans. 

“This whole year, I think it’s really affected everybody,” he said. “I know I’m not where I need to be at this point in time, but it’s a matter of trying to get your mindset back and just moving through all of this stuff.

“I’ve been shooting more and more each day since the beginning of (2021). It’s just a matter of getting my arrow count back up and getting my stamina back up. I think the mental part will come once I just get out and start shooting more and more and more.”

Marc Lancaster

Marc Lancaster is a writer and editor based in Charlotte. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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