Editor’s Note: Thirty-two-year-old Kevin Polish has been shooting archery since the age of 3, has won 14 World Championships, holds 13 out of the 18 present archery world records and, while shooting his bow from a wheelchair, he won a gold medal with the U.S. Archery Team at the FITA (today known as the World Archery Federation) World Team Challenge in 2005. He lives in Carmichael, Pennsylvania.
“I believe I have a God-given talent for shooting competitive archery,” Polish says. Today, Polish bowhunts, competes in competitive bowfishing and is preparing to re-launch his archery career in the 2016 tournament archery season. Kj’s PRO Archery is owned by Polish’s dad, and Polish coaches competitive archers there and is engaged to Shana Krajnak. Kevin Polish has proved that nothing can stop a champion’s spirit.
Winning Five World Archery Championships Before Age 15
My dad owned Kj’s PRO Archery when I was born. He helped me draw and shoot a bow when I was only 3, since I couldn’t pull it back by myself. I shot my first full archery competition at age 11 as the youngest contestant at the IBO (International Bowhunting Organization) Youth Division Indoor World 3D Archery Championships. We shot at life-size animal targets at unknown distances. I won my first World Championship in the Youth Division, shooting ranges from zero to 50 yards, pulling a 51-pound bow.
I was often asked how I’d learned to judge distance so young, since that skill was key to shooting a bow accurately. If I knew the distance, then I could pick the sight pin to use to hit the center of the target. So, for 2 hours before and after school, I judged distance until dark. I’d shoot an arrow at the target and use our long rope measuring tape to learn the distance to the target and my arrow. I put in 4 – 9 hours per day – every day – judging distance and shooting at targets. There was no such thing as a range finder then. I enjoyed shooting my bow, competing and winning archery championships shooting with my fingers.
Fighting to Shoot with the Big Boys
At 15, I told my dad I wanted to compete in the Men’s Open Professional Archery Class to win money instead of the trophies and plaques offered in the Youth Division I wanted to be a professional archer and compete against the world’s best archers. We had to hire an attorney to talk to the various archery organizations. I had to sign paperwork that stated that any money I earned as a professional archer would go into college scholarship funds or be put in trust funds for me until I turned 18.
I became the youngest person ever to gain permission to shoot against the best adult archers in the world.
I shot my first professional tournament held in Bedford, Indiana – the IBO first leg of the Triple Crown – placed fifth and earned a check, competing against 289 of the nation’s best archers. As a teenager, I finished the 1999 season in seventh place at the IBO World Competition, scored in the top 5 on the ASA (Archery Shooters Association) www.asaarchery.com tournament trail and finished second in the Cabela’s World Championships. I earned about $20,000 this first year. When only 16, I signed a sponsorship contract with Mathews Archery www.mathewsinc.com and picked up several other sponsors for a total of about $150,000 per year. On top of the world going into the 1999 tournament archery season, I had accomplished my dream of being a professional archer.
Experiencing a Life Changing Accident
On October 9, 1999, I went deer hunting with my friend Dale Hillberry, who is like my brother. Although Dale had arrowed a deer, we searched for 3 hours but didn’t find him. I suggested we give the buck a chance to lie down and not pressure him. But Dale wanted to stay on the trail of the deer. I returned to help my dad at the archery shop. Then another friend, Franklin Agee, came by, and we left to help Dale find his deer. Rain was coming down hard. My dad told me I should stay at the shop in that bad weather. However, I wanted to go help Dale and possibly hunt myself that afternoon.
About 10-miles away from the archery shop, Franklin and I turned on to a dirt road, going about 30 miles per hour. Suddenly, a flock of turkeys stood front of me. I swerved the car to the left to miss the turkeys, applied the brakes and went off the edge of the road and down a 100-foot bank. I finally got the car running straight down the bank before we hit a 2-foot stump that caused the car to jackknife and roll about 10 times down the hill.
I was thrown out of the vehicle and went about 37 feet up in the air, although I was wearing my seatbelt. The impact of the crash was so severe that the seatbelt broke and pulled out of the buckle. The tree we hit broke in half and broke my back.
When I was flying through the air, the thought popped into my mind, “Wow, this is cool. I’m flying.”
After I hit the ground and finally stopped rolling, I looked up, saw the sky and thought, “Well, I’m alive, and nothing hurts.” But my body felt like scalding hot water was running though my veins, and then I began hurting.
I could hear Franklin screaming. I put my hands on the ground to push myself up to go help my buddy, and I heard a pop. The only thing off the ground was my chest. The middle portion of my body was turned around, and I saw my butt. I grabbed my butt cheek and squeezed it, but I couldn’t feel anything. That’s when I realized I must be paralyzed.
Franklin was in shock, didn’t know where he was and didn’t know who I was for about 30 minutes. I was bleeding out of my mouth and my ears, and I hardly could breathe. While choking on my own blood, I told Franklin, “You have to go for help. I can’t move.” Franklin got up, walked up to the road and met up with a car about 80 yards away.
The man driving the car was one of our customers at Kj’s PRO Archery. He came down, saw me wedged in the tree and called 911 for help. The paramedics arrived shortly, but had to use the Jaws of Life to pry the tree open wide enough to get me out.
Traveling the Hard Road Back to Recovery and Archery
I stayed in the hospital from October 9, 1999, until January, 2000, because I’d broken my back from T7 to T10. Actually, I’d broken my back 6 inches apart. To repair my back, the doctors put in rods and used screws, bolts and clamps to put me back together again. Today when I go through an airport, I guess my back looks like an erector set.
For 2 weeks during my hospital stay, I didn’t speak, and I wouldn’t open my eyes. I had been at the height of my game as a world-class tournament archer, and the doctors told me I wouldn’t even be able to sit up or stand up.
Spinal cord injury is devastating to anyone. The thought of never being able to pull a bow again messed me up mentally.
Psychiatrists came in to see me. Since they knew I loved the outdoors, they told me I still could compete in various sports but never again in archery. I informed them that they were wrong, and I would start shooting my bow again.
I decided I’d do what I had to do to shoot the bow and compete in archery tournaments. I worked out in physical therapy 8 hours per day and often would get so tired from working out that I’d pass out. When I woke up, I’d say, “Let’s go work some more.”
Three or four months after I was released from the hospital, when I could sit up, I wanted to start shooting the bow again. However, I couldn’t hold the bow up without falling out of my wheelchair. My dad took a ratchet strap and wrapped it around my chest to enable me to sit up straight without falling over. Then he’d loosen the strap some. Finally, I got strong enough to be able to balance myself in the upright position while holding my bow. At that time and even today, I have no feeling from my chest down.
I practiced holding my bow up when I was sitting, next pulling the bow to full draw and finally reaching a point to where I could pull the bow string all the way back at 20 pounds of pull. Then I nocked an arrow on my string and shot at targets. Holding a bow was difficult since I didn’t have any balance. I had to learn how to counterbalance my body. I would lean one way and hold the bow the opposite way. I had to completely relearn how to shoot the bow with my new body. However, today, 16 years later, I can pull a 100-pound bow back to full draw with one finger.
Within 6 months of leaving the hospital, I started competing again. I went to the 2000 World Archery Tournament in Las Vegas to shoot in the Pro Division. My friends were crying with joy that I was back and were so happy to see me. This tournament had 2,800 of the world’s best archers, and my Pro Class had 850 of the greatest archers. I took second place when Jeff Hopkins beat me by one point.
I went to four more World Championship contests that year, and eventually I was ranked in the top 15 archers of the world. I was able to go to those tournaments due to my sponsors. My sponsorships after my accident didn’t pay me as much as the contracts I’d had before my injury.
But I was so glad to be back in competitive archery and have sponsors who helped me with my expenses. Including gas, motel rooms, food and entry fees for me and my caregiver, out-of-pocket expenses for any tournament was about $2,000. By the end of year one, I had all my sponsorships back that I’d had before my accident and earned about $30,000 in tournament winnings.
I had other financial problems that kept me from traveling though. My dad’s store got robbed, and he’d also taken 3 months off from work to care for me after my accident. I had the skills and talent to win archery tournaments, but without the money to travel, I couldn’t maintain that high level of consistency required.
I didn’t shoot competitive archery from 2011 to 2013. But then, I came back to competitive archery and was ranked in the top five in the world. However, the cost of tournaments and taking someone with me got so expensive that I had to drop out after the 2013 season. To earn a living as a pro archer I needed to attend 10 or 11 tournaments per year. So, I’ve stayed out of professional archery for the last 2 years and plan to return to pro archery in 2016.
Two years ago a friend came into my dad’s archery shop, who wanted to buy some bowfishing equipment, and asked me, “Have you been bowfishing lately?” In the past, he knew I’d waded out in the water and taken rough fish like carp, gar and drum with my bow and arrow. I told him, “No, since my accident, wading in the water in a wheelchair is hard.”
Danny smiled and said, “Why walk in the water when you can sit on a boat and shoot? You really need to get back into bowfishing.”
About 3 days after Danny came into the shop, I decided I needed to try bowfishing. I had a pontoon boat that I could fish off of in my wheelchair. I bought some lights, put them around the front end of the boat, borrowed one of my buddy’s portable generators and bowfished at night. Friends and I go bowfishing about every other night and bowfish from dusk until about 1:00 or 2:00 am.
My biggest fish I’ve ever taken is a 32-pound common carp. Usually three or four guys bowfish with me on the pontoon boat on Pennsylvania’s Monongahela River. I sit on the front of the boat and lock my wheelchair. My buddies tie the wheels of my chair to the boat.
I shoot a 32-inch axle-to-axle bow made by TNT archery www.tntarchery.com. My buddies and I also compete in bowfishing championships.
I’m often asked, “What do you like about bowfishing?” Bowfishing is a challenge, and you’ll miss more fish than you hit. To shoot accurately at a fish underwater, you have to quickly and instantly determine what distance you are to the fish, how deep the fish is in the water and how far away the fish is from the boat and then make your best guess of where to aim.
If I shoot 100 shots in a night, I’ll probably miss 20 percent. Bowfishing tournaments give me a way to continue to compete.
In February, 2016, I plan to return to Las Vegas for the World Archery Shoot and restart my pro archery career. At the 2005 FITA World Team Challenge – the Olympics of compound bow archers – I shot for Team USA. Our USA team won a gold medal, breaking four or five world records in that competition. We defeated the second place team by 36 points.
I was the first disabled athlete to ever compete in a World Archery Tournament against other athletes who weren’t disabled in any way.
When I rolled up to the awards stand, and the national anthem played, at that time, I realized what the national anthem meant to me, and tears came to my eyes. That moment was the greatest day of my life.
About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.