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March 28, 2024

From tragedy to triumph, Eric Bennett's love for archery pulled him back in and took him to the top of the world

Growing up, Eric Bennett threw himself headlong into many different sports but as he lay recovering in his hospital bed aged just 15, having lost his right arm above the elbow, there was just one he feared he may never do ever again.

That sport was archery.

It would take a persistent father to help him rediscover his love for the sport and a loving wife to help him chase his dreams! The 50-year-old now stands on the verge of a fifth Paralympic Games.

The year was 1989 and the teenage Bennett was enjoying his summer break, out with his dad, when their car was sent into a violent roll after being struck by the vehicle of a drunk driver, crushing the young Bennett’s arm.

He said, “As we were trying to figure out what life was going to look like, while I was still in the hospital, we went through trying to figure out a way for me to play baseball – because there was a one-arm baseball player at the time named Jim Abbott – and we talked about how I would just have to learn how to play tennis with my left hand.

“We talked about all these different things, and then when we got to bow hunting, and shooting my bow, that was the one thing that broke me because I thought at that time – at least I thought – that I would never shoot my bow again.”

And he didn’t, at least not until he was in his early 20s.

For Bennett, archery – and specifically bow hunting – was the extracurricular sport that he did with his dad. In school, he enjoyed basketball, baseball and tennis.

He received his first hunting-style bow when he was 14 and never shot competitively during this time. It was merely father and son time.

And then the accident and Bennett walked away from the one sport he adored.

“I convinced myself that shooting a bow is literally a two-armed thing,” he said. “I thought ‘there’s no way around it, and I guess that’s it, I’m never going to shoot a bow again’, and that was pretty devastating.”

Bennett switched off from archery to the extent that he would not even talk about it. It was a close family activity that he no longer felt any part of, and he wanted no part of it.

That is until a phone call from his dad while away at college.

“He called me with ‘good news and bad news’ is what he said,” added Bennett. “In Arizona to go hunting you have to apply for a hunting permit, and it’s hard to get that permit.

“I was applying for rifle permits because I couldn’t shoot a bow, and my dad called me and said, ‘I got good news, you’ve got drawn for a permit, but I put you in for the wrong hunt and it’s an archery tag.’

“Man, that crushed me again. Here I was seven or eight years later, and it was being thrown in my face that I wouldn’t be able to shoot a bow and now I had this tag that I couldn’t use.

“But my dad finished the phone call saying, ‘I’ve got an idea that I think will work.’ And I was all ears.”

It turned out that Bennett’s dad had watched a National Geographic episode that showed a tribe in Africa that hunted big game, using bows so big that they had to sit on the ground. They then positioned the bow sideways and held it with their feet.

Bennett was not amused but his dad would not be deterred. He was eager to get his son back doing what he loved, and so when Bennett returned from college for the summer, they set about fashioning a bow which would emulate the African tribespeople.

“It didn’t work great at all,” admitted Bennett. “But I got to go hunting with my family for the first time in a long time and I was fortunate enough to harvest my first elk on that hunt and that was a game-changer at that point.”

Up until then, Bennett had convinced himself that his days of drawing back a bow were over, something he regrets, bearing in mind what he has since gone on to achieve.

He explained, “I wish that I had been more positive about trying to find a solution because I lost a lot of years of competition. I used my foot bow in my early 20s. By the time I started shooting with my mouth, and got better and started being competitive and then made my first international team, I was almost 35.”

It is fair to say, Eric Bennett has made up for lost time. He is a four-time Paralympian, making his first appearance at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, since when he has represented the USA in London, Rio and Tokyo.

The Phoenix-born archer is also a two-time world champion, has held multiple world records and been a member of the USAT (United States Archery Team) for, in his words, “Almost a continuous 16 years. That’s huge for me and I’m very proud of that.”

When not on the range, Bennett can be found in the classroom. He is a high school physics teacher and once had a certain Brady Ellison among his students. His wife, Rachel, is also a teacher and his greatest supporter.

“The only one who has truly allowed this to happen for me is my wife,” Bennett stated. “I got married in 2003 – so early in my career. At that time I was just shooting local stuff and it was a hobby and it was fun but she was the one behind me when I had the opportunity in 06-07 to start thinking about Beijing. She’s the one who made it possible. Without her support, none of that happens.”

Eric Bennett is a husband, a father, a teacher, an archer, a role model and a pioneer.

“You don’t start out seeking to be a role model,” Bennett said. “But as I get to the twilight of my career, both in archery and teaching, I look back and I appreciate the opportunity that I’ve had to be a positive influence. It’s been hard for me to accept that I’ve been a positive influence.

“At one point I was one of one or two archers that was using a mechanical release on my shoulder but now there are dozens across multiple countries using that method and a lot of that is based off me helping to pioneer that.

“And then we move to me shooting recurve with a mouth tab. I was really the first one to do it at the international level. It had been done before at a different level, but I won a world championship that way, in 2015.

“Now there’s two mouth tab recurve shooters that are ranked higher than me, who both started as a direct result of me doing it. On the one hand I hate that they’re in front of me, but on the other hand I appreciate the chance I had to be an influence.”

A former world number one in recurve men open, Bennett won mixed team gold at the 2023 Para Pan American Games in Chile, alongside Candice Caesar, just a few weeks after turning 50, and next week he will compete in his home event, the Arizona Cup, which also forms Stage 1 of the Paralympic Trials Qualification Event.

Paris would be his fifth Paralympic Games, after which he will begin to take things a little easier. Asked what was left to achieve, he said, “I still haven’t won the gold. I haven’t sealed the deal at the Games.

“Archery’s a hard sport to win that last medal because of the elimination format. As much success as I’ve had, I haven’t been able to do it at the Games.

“Paris is what’s left for me. It’s two-fold. This is probably my last chance at a gold medal but also that chance for my family to see it happen.”

For an archer who fell in love with the sport, walked away after a terrible accident, only to rediscover his passion and to go on and excel, Eric Bennett’s journey may well take him to Paris. It may then take a different, perhaps slower, path but then there is always the carrot of the 2028 Paralympic Games in Los Angeles, and Bennett’s attitude toward that sums up his approach to the last 30 years … never say never.

“This is no secret – my wife knows this too – that the allure of trying to shoot in LA is no small thing. Nothing would be cooler than to represent my country on home soil.”

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