Lia Coryell poses for a photo at an archery competition. Photo courtesy of Dr. Nicole Detling.
Until Lia Coryell won the Para Pan American Championships in March, she’d never had a gold medal draped around her neck.
And yet people who know Coryell will tell you she’s undefeated.
Several months ago, Coryell was so sick that she couldn’t talk and breathe at the same time. Her friend and teammate Eric “Trainwreck” Burkett called and told her, “You’re 56-0, Lia, you’re 56-0, don’t give this one up.”
“I’m still 56-0,” Coryell said.
That’s 56 years of overcoming adversity, starting with an impoverished childhood and a kindergarten teacher who “predicted my failure at life.” A multiple sclerosis diagnosis at age 19 forced Coryell to take a medical discharge from the Army – she jokes she is probably “this country’s oldest private” -- and progressed into palliative care last year.
“People say, ‘Oh you can’t do this.’ ‘She’ll never do this.’ My whole life has been that,” said Coryell, who is well on her way to qualifying for her second Paralympic Games in para archery.
With that victory at the Para Pan American Championships in Monterrey, Mexico, Coryell secured the W-1 quota spot for Team USA at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2021 – an achievement that looked impossible a few months earlier.
As the pandemic brought one health crisis after another, Coryell kept pulling arrows out of her quiver. First, Coryell found out she had pericarditis, an autoimmune response to stress, after going into isolation in her apartment in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
“Literally my heart was broken because I was away from my people,” said Coryell, who thrives on social interactions.
She shot down the hallway in her apartment, with the carpet wearing out the tread on her wheelchair’s tires, and could hit anything at 9 feet.
“I could even probably do it closing my eyes,” she said.
When her heart issue improved, Coryell received permission to shoot on a decommissioned range at Fort McCoy, a nearby Army base. She learned to listen to her body, recognizing that the rhythm of her shooting was exactly the same as her heartbeat.
“By the end of summer I was shooting better than I ever had,” Coryell said, “because I had zero distractions. I didn’t have to travel. I couldn’t be around people. I was riding high, and I was thinking, ‘This was going to be cake.’”
Then in November, Coryell was diagnosed with Covid-19. She recovered but was struck with bacterial pneumonia in both lungs, heart failure, the beginning stages of kidney failure, and shingles on her face that went septic because of a staph infection.
“That’s when the fight to live began,” Coryell said.
Exhausted After So Many Years
There were times Coryell said she was so tired after battling progressive MS for 35 years that she just wanted to be at peace.
“My mind and body were ready to be done,” Coryell said.
Burkett, whom Coryell calls a “grouchy double leg amputee Marine,” told her that the team would be lost without her and that she was the big sister he’d never wanted -- but needed.
Coryell’s son reminded her that she’d made a commitment to serve on the board of directors for both USA Archery and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.
“And we decided that I have never lost a fight in my life, whether it be verbal or any other, and this was a fight I wasn’t going to lose,” Coryell said. “So I just powered through it.
“People don’t always like the decisions we have, but we have them. Choose wisely.”
On Jan. 17, Coryell was cleared to stop the last of her medications, and by Feb. 14 she was at the training center in Chula Vista, California, as a resident athlete for a month.
But Coryell didn’t look the same. Her hair had turned from gray blonde to translucent, another autoimmune response. She didn’t even realize it at the time because she was so sick that she didn’t look in the mirror.
Coryell said she won’t dye her hair because she’s “ earned every one of those strands.”.
The day before leaving for Chula Vista, Coryell went to the archery range in Wisconsin and shot six arrows into a bale.
“I couldn’t even get them out,” she said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not sure this is the right thing to do, but I don’t know what else to do because sitting in that apartment waiting to get the next thing is not mentally helping me in any way,’ so I stuck it out.”
At the training center, Coryell couldn’t do the usual 72 arrows at a time, so she broke her workouts into six manageable sections a day.
Two weeks later, Coryell was in Mexico, where she again had to battle her own body before she could shoot at the target 50 meters away. Her heart went into an arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat.
“I thought the poor medic there was going to have a meltdown,” Coryell said. “My heart rate sped up so my blood pressure dropped. And then I couldn’t even talk. Then it flipped around, and my heart rate dropped and my blood pressure was like 200 over 160 and he was freaking out. But you just have to wait it out.”
There was a possibility she wouldn’t be able to compete, but after about 15 minutes Coryell felt better. She went on to win the gold medal, which was critical since only the champion would earn the Paralympic quota spot.
“For the first time, they raised that flag – I get choked up thinking about it – and played the national anthem for me,” Coryell said. “I was very, very tearful for several reasons, and probably the main one was that was proof I won that fight -- the fact that I was there, and able to shoot arrows.”
Qualification Almost in the Bag
Since Coryell is the only female W-1 archer vying for the spot, as soon as she finishes Stage 3 of the U.S. Paralympic Trials – Archery on June 3, she is set to be Tokyo-bound. Coryell then has until August 24 to work on her strength and endurance.
But just making Team USA won’t be enough.
“I’m not going just to go, I’m going because I want that medal,” Coryell said. “I can’t foresee going any further past this as an athlete, but as a coach absolutely.”
At the Rio Paralympics, she placed fourth in W-1 mixed team with Jeff Fabry and reached the quarterfinals in the individual event, losing to the eventual silver medalist.
“People always like to talk and they said I was riding on Jeff’s coattails and that was the only reason I got to go to Rio,” she said, adding in a sing-song voice, “Well, they can’t say that now, can they?”
Coryell credits her friends, family, doctors, “and just the rebellious child that still lives in me.”
As the oldest of eight children in her family, Coryell said she started life “from behind the eight ball.”
With that kind of background, she said, “There are no expectations for you to succeed or to achieve. As I got older, I realized there’s this rebellious side of me, that says, ‘Yeah watch me.’”
When she started kindergarten, Coryell said her mom was not educated and her dad was in and out of jail and never in the picture. The teacher asked Coryell to pick out her name on a list, and she had no idea which was hers. The teacher looked at the principal and rolled her eyes.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Coryell said. “I’m like, ‘You think I don’t see you? I see you and you’re predicting already that I’m going to be a pain.’ Finding success and achievement when you’re always the left behind, the not quite good enough, the forgotten, the kids that never quite make it - those are the kids that I do this for because I was that kid.’”
Coryell said when she speaks at schools, Boys & Girls Clubs or at workplaces which employ migrant workers, she tells the children, “Don’t let anybody else predict your future because it is in your hands.”
Late Start in Para Archery
Coryell didn’t have a compound bow in her hands until 2014. She found the sport by attending an adaptive sports camp for wounded and ill military veterans with some friends who didn’t want to go alone.
“I realized in hindsight is they didn’t choose me because I was a good archer, or because I was a good athlete,” she said. “They chose me because I was the most impaired.”
The rebellious child in Coryell again had something to prove, and by 2016 she was at the Paralympics as a first-time participant in her 50s.
Coryell is already transitioning into her next career as a coach. She works with wounded warriors and is coaching Cameron Peyton, an Olympic hopeful and National Archery in the Schools Program champion.
“He’s so darn tall, I have to use a selfie stick with my phone to see what he’s doing up there,” Coryell said. “I’m sure we look like Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo.”
She’s also a talent scout and mentor. Emma Rose Ravish, who also secured a Paralympic quota spot in Mexico, is “our new little rock star,” Coryell said. “Literally, I found her on the line at Arizona Cup and went to talk to her.”
Coryell also has posted some TikToks that have gone viral, such as one of a young girl shooting with a mouth tab.
“Now millions of people have seen adaptive archery,” Coryell said.
At the end of October, she plans to move to San Antonio, Texas, to volunteer with the archery program started by the veteran-run Black Rifle Coffee Company. She is also looking to start an archery program with The Pink Berets, an organization that supports female veterans dealing with stress and sexual assault.
“I’m the kind of person that has to, obviously, be with people,” Coryell said, “but I have to have a purpose. I have to give back. I have to have a meaning in my life.”
She wants to share the zen she has found with archery.
“Now people are realizing the healing properties and the mind space that archery gives you,” Coryell said. “It’s actually more of an art, almost like a performance. It’s beautiful, it’s primal, it’s instinctive -- you can’t think about anything else when you’re shooting a bow.”
But right now she’s on the path to the Tokyo Paralympics, using the rhythm of her heartbeat as her guiding force.
“They thought that my heart would just stop beating,” Coryell said of the time when she was gravely ill, “and I thought, ‘No it’s not.’ One thing they did tell me is, ‘You have an enlarged heart,’ and I’m like, ‘Anybody that knows me will tell you that.’”