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February 01, 2024

K.J. Polish lives for archery and has unfinished business with the Paralympic Games

There is some confusion over who said it and when, whether it be Confucius, Mark Twain, or Marc Anthony, but whoever suggested ‘find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life’ may as well have been talking directly to K.J. Polish.

Kevin Polish Jr. has been in love with the sport of archery since he was three years old, inspired by his father. He recalls standing in class during ninth grade, when students were asked by their teacher what career they wanted to go into and proudly telling everyone he wanted to be a professional archer.

“My teacher said, ‘oh, that’s crazy, you want to be a doctor or you want to be a lawyer’,” Polish recalled. “I said, ‘no, I want to be a professional archer’, and he was like ‘well, you can’t make no money in that world’.

“I told him that’s what I want to be. And it’s funny, because that same teacher comes to my sporting goods store that our family’s had for 30-something years, and still to this day he tells me, ‘man, I must’ve made you mad back then because you lived your dream and you lived it well’.

“I’m still living it.

“The crucial thing is, people don’t realize how much they inspire you, how much they change you. That teacher right there told me I couldn’t do it. I went home, I was mad, hurt … but it made me love it even more.”

Polish’s life took a dramatic turn in 1999 when he was involved in a car accident, just shy of his 17th birthday. He and friends had been out hunting and while driving along a dirt road, Polish swerved to avoid a flock of turkeys, sending the vehicle down a 100-foot bank.

On hitting a tree stump, the car jack-knifed, and despite Polish wearing his seatbelt, the force was so strong that he was hurled out of the vehicle and into a tree. Paramedics had to use the Jaws of Life to pry open the tree to free him. Polish had broken his back, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.

Within months of leaving the hospital, confined to a wheelchair, K.J. Polish was competing again. He defied the expectations of his ninth-grade teacher and went on to defy the odds.

“There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears, really there was,” he admitted. “I had to learn archery all over again.

“I had the mindset of an archer but I had to learn to adapt to a new system. There were a lot more downs than ups, but once I started figuring it out, it made it even more special.

“I went from being one of the best archers in the world, then having the accident, to a year later being right back at the same place. And I often say to people, you put your mind to something and you love it, you’ll figure a way – there’s always a way.”

He added, “Going through such a transition in life, from being a young man who could walk, had everything going for me, and then having a terrible accident where I was paralyzed. I was humbled in life.

“I couldn’t walk, it was hard to get out of bed but what I could do was I could shoot that bow, and it didn’t matter if I couldn’t walk, or if I couldn’t run, or I couldn’t dance, I could still shoot a bow just as good as anybody in the world.”

Driven on by his parents (his mom Christina supports him at most events), Polish is never more comfortable than when he has bow in hand. But anyone who has watched Polish compete will have witnessed the stone-cold gaze, the steely glare, the fixed expression. When he is on the line, he is in the zone and whatever is going on around him melts away.

“Some of the hardest times of my life, whenever I go and shoot my bow, I forget the world,” he said. “Whenever I draw my bow back, I don’t think about the tournament, I don’t think about the world, or the gold medals.

“Whenever I draw my bow back it’s just total relaxation in my mind because this is what saved my life. I’m as equal as anybody else when I draw my bow.”

The 2023 season was outstanding for Polish. He won all four USAT events in the compound open men division. He claimed a quota slot for this year’s Paralympic Games at the World Para Championships in Pilsen, Czech Republic – where he also won team bronze alongside Matt Stutzman – and then enjoyed double gold at the Para Pan American Games in Chile.

And yet it was not without huge challenges, coming off a huge health scare in 2022.

“I almost died again,” Polish began. “I was laid-up in hospital for a couple weeks, then bed-ridden for about a month, but the night before it all happened, I was feeling terrible, sweating and sick, and I’m like, ‘man, I’m going to shoot my bow’.

“I shot my bow for about two hours. The surgeon who carried out the procedure thinks that I am crazy for being out there shooting. I had a fever of about 104 but went outside and shot 120 arrows.

“Once I started shooting I felt amazing but as soon as I finished shooting my mom had to wheel me inside, I felt so sick again.

“My doctor said ‘I believe you when you say shooting makes you forget everything, but do you think that was a good idea, because you had six hours to live when you got to the hospital?’”

When his dad told him the smallest bows were too big for him, the three-year old Polish went outdoors and grabbed himself a stick to shape into a bow that he could use.

When a little older, he would put in hours of practice on the range, going on to win a world championship in the youth division.

He took second place at the 2000 World Archery Tournament in Las Vegas, against able-bodied archers, a mere months after his accident.

In 2005, Polish lined up alongside Braden Gellenthien and Dave Cousins as the USA won gold in the compound men’s division at the World Archery Championships in Madrid, Spain.

He has represented the United States at the 2016 and 2020 Paralympic Games, in Rio and Tokyo respectively. And he still wants more. Archery means everything to Kevin Polish Jr.

Now 41, he remains head-strong and driven and determined. He has a mindset that refuses to accept second best, adding with a smile, “The Paralympics was cool but I’m still not done with that chapter yet. That chapter’s not over; I haven’t accepted that.

“Yes, I’ve been to the Paralympics twice but my job on Earth’s not done with that yet. My goal is that I will win the gold.”

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