Matt Stutzman was born without arms, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming a world-class athlete.
Stutzman, of Fairfield, Iowa, returned home in September from the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where he won ninth place in men’s archery by shooting with his feet. The Paralympics, for athletes with disabilities, are held after the Olympic Games.
Known as the “Armless Archer,” Stutzman won a silver medal in the 2012 Paralympics in London, and he’s planning to compete in Tokyo in 2020.
“I’m going to continue training. It’s a lot of work, but it’s all right,” he said. “I’m going to give it another whirl.”
His father, Leon Stutzman, is associate pastor at Fairview Mennonite Church in Kalona, Iowa.
“He’s been athletic ever since he’s been brought into our house,” said Leon, who, with his wife, Jean, adopted Matt as a 13-month-old. “This kid wanted to play ball.”
The Stutzmans had three biological children and wanted a large family. They pursued adoption due to difficult pregnancies.
At the time, they lived in Kansas and sought adoption through social services. While waiting for that to materialize, Leon became a registered nurse and studied for a degree in nursing at Bethel College in North Newton.
Hearing nothing from the state about adoption, the couple considered serving with Mennonite Central Committee but ended up moving to Iowa, where Leon had relatives. But they neglected to notify social services.
A letter arrived from Kansas saying that unless they responded, their adoption file would be closed. The deadline had passed.
“We thought God had closed that door,” Leon said. “Then we got a call: ‘Would you be willing to adopt this young man? He has no arms.’ ”
Matt, born in Kansas City a year earlier, was four months old when his birth parents decided to place him for adoption. In a story reminiscent of the prophet Samuel discerning which of Jesse’s sons would be the next king of Israel, a social worker searched for “a special family” for Matt but could not find the right one. She came to the Stutzmans but saw their file was closed. She tried them anyway.
Willing to try anything
Matt’s parents pushed him to be independent.
“We asked him to do the things he could do, and he grew up basically figuring things out by himself,” Leon said. “He wanted to do everything ‘normal’ kids did, and we let him go ahead and try to do anything he could do.”
The only thing Jean helped Matt learn was how to sit up. Once he learned that, he stopped rolling and began scooting.
“As a little kid, he always wanted to climb trees, and he wanted me to put him into the tree,” Leon said. “I said, ‘No, you figure out a way to get into the tree.’ ”
Matt figured that out, too.
He tried several sports while his father was the physical education teacher and principal at Pathway Christian School in Kalona, a small school started by area Mennonite churches. At age 16, he began shooting a gun and bow while hunting.
“Using a bow to harvest deer came up; for me, it was not something that I was going to fail at,” Matt said. “It turned out I was pretty good at shooting it. . . . Eventually it took me into the sport of competitive archery.”
Now a husband and father, Matt still hunts deer, taking along his three young sons.
“It’s a fun activity; it’s teaching them how to live off the land,” he said. “We’re not after a big buck; we’re mainly just shooting for food for the family.”
‘God has plans for me’
Matt competes in archery tournaments about once a month. Indoor season runs December-March, and outdoor season runs April-September.
Because Matt lives about an hour away from his father’s congregation and his competitions are often on weekends, he often doesn’t get to church. But he identifies as Mennonite, and his faith is important to him.
“I know that I was created without any arms for a reason,” he said. “God has plans for me, and that’s shooting archery.”
His “Armless Archer” persona has earned him speaking engagements, from churches and schools to large companies like DirecTV and Kellogg’s.
“Shooting archery has gotten me a lot of opportunities to speak to kids and adults in churches,” Matt said. “Before archery, I wasn’t doing any of that stuff. I was just trying to make things work out at home. Since then, I’ve been able to influence people’s lives for the better. . . . I want to inspire people.”
Matt believes he is following God’s plan for his life.
“When you listen to God and he tells you this is the path you need to be on, it usually works out for the best,” he said.