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February 22, 2024

Candice Caesar, the military veteran in love with archery, who had to learn all over again

It is 25 years since Candice Caesar’s life took a dramatic and unexpected twist, and in the years since, she has defied the odds at every turn while still serving her country having switched from a military uniform to a sports uniform.

The Texas native came from a long line of veterans. Her grandfather was a World War Two veteran and her father served in Vietnam. An only child, she went against the wishes of her family when dropping out of college to join the military, with every intention of becoming a physical therapist.

The date was December 5, 1999 when the vehicle she was traveling in skidded and flipped over 18 times. A non-commissioned officer sat behind Caesar was not wearing his seatbelt so grabbed Caesar’s hair to prevent himself from flying through the front windshield.

When the vehicle finally came to a rest, and with the risk of it exploding, the front windshield was kicked out. Caesar was pulled clear and lay on the icy ground. She sustained a traumatic brain injury and a spinal cord injury, leaving her right side completely paralyzed. Initially she was unable to talk due to a paralyzed vocal cord. She also suffered right side neglect and was unable to read.

The accident happened shortly before she was due to attend college for the start of the AMEDD (Army Medical Department) program after which she would have been a commissioned officer in the military and a physical therapist. At just 27, married and with a two-year-old son, she was medically retired. Things would get worse before they got better.

“My husband left me and I had to raise my son alone,” admitted Caesar. “It was very hard. I wanted to commit suicide. I was depressed, but I put on a front for the sake of my son.

“I engaged myself in all of his activities. My identity went from Candice who’s disabled, to Trevor’s mom. As long as I was Trevor’s mom, I was the basketball mom, I was the Cub Scout leader. I just immersed myself in him.”

That was the role Caesar threw herself into for the next 15 years. It was in 2014 that she discovered her passion for sport while continuing to prove doctors wrong.

“I waited until Trevor had his driver’s license before heading down the adaptive sports path,” began Caesar. “Just in case an emergency arose so there was someone to take me to the hospital!

“They had told me I may never walk again, so when Trevor could drive the first thing I decided to do was train for a marathon. Along the way I fell in love with half marathons.”

That love for half marathons led to Caesar taking part in such events in all 50 states, as well as D.C. She also completed 24 full marathons! The wear and tear on the body, though, forced her to switch to hand-cycling, before moving onto triathlons. A training accident then introduced her to archery with another case of – quite literally – picking herself up off the floor.

“I had a training accident during Covid (2020) and had to drag myself a mile and a half back home,” she said. “And I was back in the wheelchair.

“So, in 2021, I actually started shooting archery for real. I’d tried it in 2020 but hadn’t put any stock in it until I was unable to run or hand-cycle.”

Introduced to the sport by a friend from the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Caesar began with a compound bow before switching to recurve.

She added, “My interest in archery immediately was that it’s a yoga-like meditational activity. Just you and the bow. It’s all about breathing and relaxation, and I felt at ease.”

The accident had left Caesar unable to talk or read. And she had originally called time prematurely on her college education just so she could follow in the military footsteps of her father and grandfather. Caesar returned to college so she could put food on the table for her and her son.

“I was a better student after the injury,” she insisted.

Caesar gained two bachelor of science degrees - in psychology and communications disorders - plus a masters degree in speech language pathology and, having suffered a paralyzed vocal cord in the accident, is now a speech therapist.

Candice Caesar is one remarkable woman, and one who lives to help and serve.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get the opportunity to don my nation’s uniform in sport,” she beamed. “When I was in the military, I donned my uniform, I wore it with pride, I was serving my country. Now I get to represent my country. It’s a different feeling.”

Caesar was not very sporty at school. She had a bad experience on the volleyball team in fourth grade and ended up being on the band drill team, which gave her the sense of belonging she later found by being in the military and more recently within the archery community.

“Since the inception of sport in my life, I have thoroughly changed,” said Caesar. “I feel as though I have made better gains physically, mentally and emotionally than I would have without sports, so I’m a huge advocate for adaptive sports.”

Though relatively new to archery, she has swiftly risen up the recurve ranks, representing her nation, relishing the rivalry but grateful for the camaraderie. She was a gold medal winner in the recurve mixed team open at the 2022 Para Pan American Championships, when partnering Kevin Mather, and then at the 2023 Para Pan American Games alongside Eric Bennett.

She inspires, empowers, encourages, represents and is a role model, whether she is aware of it or seeking it, whether that be young girls, or female athletes, or the black community.

After a long pause, Caesar slowly said, “I was never really conscious of those who could possibly be looking up to me as a black female athlete but I do not take this charge lightly. Now that I’m really thinking about, I will now be a better athlete and a better representation.”

If she had any doubt as to the impact she is making, then there is one person reminding her each and every day; the one person she has had by her side each and every day, during the dark days and now during her moment to shine.

“My son is always reminding me of all of the things that I’ve overcome, that he’s seen me overcome,” said Caesar. “He kind of keeps me on the ‘ya know, I’m not just an average shooter, what I’m doing is amazing. I’m representing my country. I’m doing good things. I’m showing people that they can do things as well’.

“He is my support system, and since losing my mom and aunt during my archery journey, he’s my biggest cheerleader.”

For Caesar, the journey continues. She has her heart set on winning Paralympic gold for the United States but know that whatever she is served up in the coming months, she will confront with determination. And when the bows are lowered and the competition ends, there will be a smile, irrespective of the outcome, for Candice Caesar is not defined by her archery, rather by the person who has brought her to this place, against so many odds.

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