Jerry Shields – Olympic Archer and Inspirational Hero

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To speak with Jerry Shields is to be inspired. His determination to succeed is contagious. His particular method of achievement comes from the fact that he is a skillful archer who competes with his mouth. No, I’m not referring to “trash talk” or prolific debating; Jerry Shields actually shoots the bow with his mouth!  After he suffered a stroke fifteen years ago and lost the use of his right arm and has limited use of his legs. Since that time he has become a member of the Paralympic archery team and will compete at the Paralympic games in London next weeks for Team USA.

Jerry Shield’s story is one of overcoming and becoming. When the stroke first hit, the typical hardships that accompany such a trial were present, thoughts of worthlessness and “why me” frequented Jerry’s mind. Shield’s wife, Martha, commented that through this tough time, the emotional toll on both Jerry and his family was constant and he had regular thoughts of suicide. Shields would go on to mention that during this dark time, his family stuck by him, offering extraordinary support.

With the unwavering support of his family, these dark times eventually passed and the “why me” was replaced with a sense of purpose… a “what!” Jerry’s healing began with the search for something productive to fill his days. As a veteran, he was visiting a VA summer sports camp. This provided the opportunity to relate with others that had been through their own unique adversities. While there, Jerry was intrigued by a group of archers. He asked to participate but was told that due to the severity of his handicap, he couldn’t be included on the team. People scoffed at the idea of Jerry being an archer, as he clearly wouldn’t be able to hold a bow. Though rejected by the VA archery team, that day would actually become the very motivation Jerry needed to prove his naysayers wrong. Martha says, “You don’t tell Jerry that he can’t do something, because he’ll spend all his energies proving you wrong!”

The process for Jerry to become an archer took years of dedication and practice. The observation that lacking the use of his right arm would prevent him from competing did prove a hurdle, but one he could surmount. Jerry learned how to use his less dominant left arm to hold the bow and strengthened his jaw muscles in order draw the bow string back. Then he simultaneously developed the ability to aim the bow with the string gripped in his mouth. After hundreds of hours practicing, Jerry became highly proficient at his new trade!

Jerry Shields entered local archery contests which inevitably gathered stares and even pity from the crowds and other competitors. The pity was readily turned into cheers as Jerry would go on to beat many of the top able-bodied amateurs in the contests. Five years after his stroke, Jerry began competing in the elite level Para archery events with his eyes on becoming a member of the Para Olympic Team. It was an intense journey requiring medals from the trials in order to move on. Before long the field was narrowed down to seven archers, including Jerry. Jerry Shields is now a member of the Para Olympic Archery Team representing the United States later this summer

Jerry knows that it won’t be an easy road. There is tough competition from various countries, the most challenging coming from the Czech Republic, says Jerry. Nonetheless, he remains motivated. Jerry is the definition of competition and is driven to better himself as much as to win. Jerry teases that his biggest motivation is to beat his fellow team member, Jeff Sabry. Jerry recognizes that this competitive spirit is healthy and a big part of what has allowed him to feel normal again. If you ask Jerry what he would like see in the future, his passion is clear as he says, “There needs to be many more para-type competitions! When I was watching sports from the sidelines, I felt like an outsider. Being able to compete has brought me a keen sense of belonging. This belonging is a vital part in progressing through any injury, physical or emotional.”

Jerry says that despite his competitive nature, he knows that he still has to rely on others. He first learned this after the stroke. “My family was always there through the toughest of times offering the most incredible support.” The resilience that Jerry exudes has extended to his coaches, teammates, and even his dentist. Dentist you ask? The dentist monitors Jerry’s teeth to ensure they can take the stress of pulling on the bow string. Jerry Shield’s has found that optimum performance comes through diligence, focus and the ability to learn from others. The results speak for themselves.

Knowing how others have helped him through trials to ultimately becoming a member of the Paralympic team, Jerry feels a compelling need to serve and motivate. He works closely with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) and regularly encourages them with the wisdom gained over the past fifteen years. One of Jerry’s messages, which he shares with everyone dealing with doubt and adversity, is, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you what you can’t do! Only you decide what is possible!” (I changed this slightly to be more succinct/powerful and better grammar…. Not good to end a phrase with “to”) Martha adds that Jerry emphasizes that we should appreciate our healthy bodies. By combining your mind, heart and work, something big CAN be accomplished! You can expand your potential! Jerry believes that able-bodied or not, anyone can progress.

In a little more than two weeks, the world will witness Jerry Shields competing for his country. His journey to reach this moment has been one of perseverance and overcoming daunting opposition. Jerry says that the trials are constant, but if you have something to focus on, a purpose, you can overcome anything and in the process inspire and help others along the way. Jerry is adamant that life is about creating opportunities and taking action to make sure those opportunities aren’t wasted. There is little doubt that he will make great use of the opportunity to represent his country before millions and in that spotlight, he and his fellow Paralympians will inspire others to forge ahead with no excuses, and make a positive impact. Thanks for your great example Jerry!