USA Archery Logo

December 20, 2023

The story of Wendy Gardner's rise from school band to international athlete

Paralympic Games hopeful Wendy Gardner had no interest in archery. In fact, the North Carolina native admits she was not much of a fan of any sport, excelling in band through school. All of that changed with a life-altering event after becoming a mom for the first time.

“Ten days after my son was born, I had a hemorrhagic stroke,” Wendy said. “I was completely paralyzed down the left side of my body, though I do have some of that back but suffer from left-side hemiparesis and foot drop. Physically or mentally, it wasn’t easy for me, or my family.”

The year was 2000. The adjustment was tough; the future uncertain.

Wendy continued, “I had the newborn but was unable to keep him at home once I came home from the hospital. He actually stayed with my husband Gary’s grandparents. It was probably two months after I came home from the hospital that I was able to keep him by myself.

“All the moms out there I know can probably imagine how horrible that is not being able to tend to your brand-new baby.”

As rapid as the upheaval was, it would take almost 20 years for Wendy to discover, fall in love and ultimately excel at archery.

“My daughter wanted a compound bow for Christmas, because she had watched The Hunger Games,” Wendy explained. “We got her that and then we decided to go the Vegas Shoot just to watch and there is where I saw Matt Stutzman.

“I got to thinking that ‘hey, if he can do it and he doesn’t have arms, I still have arms and one good leg, there has got to be some way that I could try this’.

“Gary had done a little bit of archery growing up so I thought this was something we could all do together, plus it was something I could participate in.”

From that point on, husband Gary got to work on designing a shoulder brace which would allow Wendy to even shoot a bow. A number of designs have followed, as has the success.

In the process of seeking out a system which worked, the Gardner family realized just how costly equipment was for adaptive archers, which then led to them going above and beyond.

Wendy added, “We went to a prosthetics place and had one professionally made for me. It actually didn’t end up working and they are very expensive to have made so he (Gary) ended up starting a nonprofit.

“He now makes these (prosthetics) and all kinds of adaptive equipment for archery and we actually donate it to adaptive archers. To see the looks on the faces of the people who receive equipment from us – that’s what makes it all worth it.”

The giving Gardners have taken a setback in life and not only turned it into something special for themselves but have also used it as an opportunity to give to others. Wendy stresses that both her and Gary are givers and that ‘this has blossomed into something great for us’.

She said, “We can go out as a couple and compete in archery and hopefully inspire others to get out and try something new. I didn’t know I could do this until I tried. “

Wendy began with a kids’ bow and today still has light poundage. Her husband set about figuring out ways to hook up her release and she started simply having fun at home. Competing was not part of the archery conversation, though she was keen to move on from the kids’ bow to a target bow. After Gary had settled on her adaptive equipment, Wendy was able to acquire a target bow and increase her poundage. Next step was to get classified.

“The first event I went to was 2020 Target Nationals,” Wendy recalled. “I’d never competed in anything before but you had to enter the competition to get your classification.

“I was ‘ok, go big or go home’. I got classified but I did not do well at the event at all. I didn’t even know the rules but I went and I did it and every event after that I just improved and improved.”

Wendy scored from just two of the four rounds in the 2020 edition, managing 540 points from 72 arrows. At the same event this year, she topped the scoring after 144 arrows with 1,272 points, 45 more than her nearest challenger.

What started out as something fun for her and the family has since taken Wendy all around the world. There was a team gold and individual bronze at the Para Pan American Games in Chile in November and one of the USA’s leading para archers now has dreams of representing her country on sport’s biggest stage at the 2024 Paralympic Games in Paris, France.

“Without my hemorrhagic stroke I would not be here doing this,” Wendy continued. “I would be somewhere else doing who knows what.

“But maybe this is why this happened to me. This is what I’m meant to do; this is who I’m meant to be. And so representing the United States is just indescribable.”

The archery community has been huge source of support to Wendy and her family. From her local shop, First Flight Archery in Raleigh, N.C., to the competitors on the line both able-bodied and para.

Wendy admits she would not be where she is without the help of First Flight Archery, while pointing to other archers as being incredible role models, singling out Alexis Ruiz and Paige Pearce in particular.

This year has been the most successful for Wendy Gardner. Not only did she win two medals at the Para Pan Am Games, but she claimed double team gold at the Chicago Para-Archery Championship and topped the podium at three of the USAT Qualifier Series Events – Arizona Cup, Gator Cup and Buckeye Classic.

The focus for 2024 is very much on the Paralympic Games. Before that there is Phase 3 of the qualification process in February in Dubai, with the USA still eager to claim quota slots in the recurve open women and compound open women.

Compound archer Wendy said, “I just really would love to earn the quota slot but if we get the quota slot and I were not to win the trials for it, I would want the best person to go to the Paralympics.

“Obviously I would be disappointed, but you want the best person to represent the United States in the biggest event that we have.”

Humility shines through Wendy Gardner, as does tenacity, warmth, grit, perseverance and gratitude. And as she was inspired by Matt Stutzman so others will look to her as an inspiration, though true to her character, that is something she struggles with.

“Sometimes I don’t think people are even looking at me,” she said modestly. “They’re looking at the archers that are the most successful.

“But maybe there is somebody back there that’s like ‘oh wow, she’s like me’, or ‘she’s like my child’, or ‘this could happen to me’. I hope it doesn’t happen to anyone else but I want you to know that there are things out there that you can do.

“I feel like archery really is for anyone. You think you may not like it but hey, you don’t know, go give it a try because it is a great community and a great family.”

< Back to All News

A thank you to our proud sponsors

View All Sponsors

Connect With Us