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January 17, 2024

Tracy Otto, chasing her dreams through archery, is keen to be a light in the world

Photo: Mark Reis/USOPC

Warning: This story discusses domestic violence and drug abuse.

“I had this life-changing, catastrophic injury happen to me that wasn’t a decision that I made; it was something that was thrust in my direction - like ‘this is your life now’ - and having that support around me has helped me mentally and emotionally just thrive and really embrace the new life that I’m living.”

Tracy Otto is one of life’s fighters.

“I didn’t have a lot of support growing up,” she said. “My childhood wasn’t the greatest. I lost my mom when I was 10 and my parents were really into drugs, so I know what it’s like not to have that support and not know necessarily where you’re going to go, or where you’re going to turn to next.”

Having lost her mom before her teens, Otto almost lost her life when just 23. The date was October 24, 2019 and she had been on a second date with her then new boyfriend Rick Riessle. They were attacked with a pellet gun and knife while sleeping by Otto’s jealous ex-boyfriend and left for dead.

Riessle suffered a punctured lung, while Otto lost an eye and was left paralyzed from the chest down. A little over four years on from that horrific incident and the pair remain inseparable.

“She makes me want to wake up and be a better person every day,” began an emotional Riessle. “I truly believe everything happens for a reason and you have to figure out why.

“Because if you’d told me five years ago – and I mean no offense to anybody – that I would be madly in love with a one-eyed quadriplegic I probably would’ve thought you were crazy.”

Riessle lovingly wrapped his arm around Otto as he spoke of the journey she has been on, the struggles she has endured and the monumental hurdles she has had to overcome.

One moment, Otto was a student at the University of Tampa while sharing her passion for fitness through social media, and the next she was working her way through months of rehab while now being confined to a wheelchair.

She said, “That first year there was obviously a lot of figuring out my body, figuring out how to eat again, how do I drink water again? Eating and drinking in the beginning was a struggle (due to the injuries sustained from the attack), as was picking up my water bottle, going to the bathroom … simple, simple things.”

And that is when archery came into her life.

“Ricky and I were on the highway and I was sitting thinking ‘I have all of this new-found time on my hands and I don’t really know what to do with it and I don’t know how to make this productive’,” explained Otto.

“So, I went online and looked up adaptive sports programs in my area and lo-and-behold archery was on that list and I turned to Ricky and I said, ‘I think I’m going to shoot archery’."

Riessle immediately questioned how Otto could possibly shoot archery as she had lost the use of her hands. Tracy Otto, though, has always found a way in life, whether it was adjusting to the loss of her mother or picking herself back up after the violent attack. She would find a way to shoot archery.

On her first visit to the All People’s Life Center in Tampa she was introduced to Earl C. Brown. He became her first coach and helped fashion a bite tab onto a Genesis bow.

“I bit on the bite tab and I was kind of falling over in my chair,” Otto said with a smile. “But I drew back and let the arrow fly and it hit the target and I was like ‘I have to do this; I have to see this through’. I was hooked immediately.”

That one, fleeting yet exhilarating moment, when the arrow released by Otto landed in the target, altered the course of her life yet again.

She added, “In that moment it wasn’t about what I can’t do but it was about what I can do. It was about figuring it out and adapting.”

Otto has certainly adapted, guided by the inspirational words spoken to her by Brown during those early days in her new sport.

“He was the first to tell me that ‘it was not about focusing on your disability, it’s about your ability’,” explained Otto. “He just instilled that mindset into me from day one and it just stuck with me.”

Tracy Otto survived a troubling childhood and then survived an attempt on her life. There have been many dark days, but she has chosen to live her best life. She has an adoring boyfriend by her side, one that in her words has taught her what unconditional love truly is.

But she has also discovered a new passion in archery, one which has led to her winning gold for her country at the 2023 Pan American Games. Not only did Otto win gold in Chile but she also won a quota slot for the Paralympic Games for the United States.

Otto explained, “Being on that podium is a moment that I’m going to hold dear in my heart - and I’m going to cry as I’m saying this – because growing up for me wasn’t the greatest and I have a lot of goals and a lot of dreams and having that moment happen to me was just out of this world.”

Less than five years on from that harrowing night in her Florida home, and just over two years on from taking up the sport, Tracy Otto now stands on the brink of representing her nation on the greatest stage of all.

“Obviously there’s the part where I want to win and bring home the gold and represent the United States,” added Otto. “But I’ve never wanted something so bad in my life (to compete in the Paralympics), to do the impossible, right?

“In the grand scheme of things, I’m not supposed to be here, so to complete that goal and accomplish something like that … I want to bring it back to being that light in this world.”

The road so far has been tough; the journey has been harrowing, but the archery community has been like family, loving, welcoming and supportive. There was a time when Otto was questioning what path her life was going to take next. Now, that pathway is a little clearer, with Paris hovering on the horizon.

She ended by saying, “We were talking to my mentor, Doug Godfrey, and I asked him ‘what’s the end-all-be-all for this, what is the end game?’

“He said ‘it’s the Paralympics and that is the biggest competition’, and I was like ‘well, when is it?’ He told me it was in 2024 and I was like, ‘alright, let’s go, let’s do it’.”

Tracy Otto has gone through more than most and yet she remains resilient and bright and positive and determined and driven and warm. Perhaps it is who she needed to be, or perhaps it is who she has always been.

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