Kevin Mather became the first American to win the recurve open gold medal for the United States a year ago at the Tokyo Paralympics. Before him, Lindsey Carmichael was the only archer to stand on the podium in the recurve open categories with a bronze medal at the 2008 Paralympics.

Prior to taking up archery, Matter competed in Ironman triathlons and was a member of the U.S. Paralympic alpine ski team. He took up archery when a friend of his invited him to shoot some arrows, and he turned out to be pretty good.

The journey began in 2017. That year, Mather competed in two World Championships in two different sports, alpine skiing and archery. At the Archery Para Championships, his first international archery competition, he won a silver medal in the recurve men’s team. 

In the end, Mather decided on one sport, archery. “There is no magical reason why I went to archery, it’s just a sport I enjoy doing.” said Mather. “Archery is important to me because of the community. There are a lot of people I’ve become very good friends with, that will do everything for me and I will do anything for them.”

Archery had other advantages for him. It’s a sport that can be practiced for a longer age range and with less risk of injury. “I am not 15 or 20 years old now. If you fall skiing you can blow out your shoulder very easily. Archery is a lot less impactful on the body. I think that’s why it was appealing to me.”

 

Set your goals

When Mather got serious about archery, part of his goals were to win a Paralympic gold medal within a period of three Olympic cycles. “You don’t go to one Games and expect to win everything. If you have one shot like that your chances of success are extremely limited.”, Mather said during an interview with Troy Bassham of Mental Management Systems.

But before he could get his first shot, the Covid pandemic hit, and the Games were postponed for a year. As soon as the news came, Mather decided to relax and take his training easy. “Get ready when you need to be ready. That was my approach.” Part of this was shooting his compound bow.

Finally, between May and June, trials were held for the U.S. team. There were two spots available for the men’s recurve. Mather finished in first place and took the first spot. Eric Bennett took the second.

With a spot in the bag, Mather prepared for his first Games. The recipe was simple: shoot lots of arrows at his shooting field in Denver, Colorado. Sometimes he also went to the Olympic facility in San Diego, where he could shoot among the archers returning from the Olympics. But most of the time he trained alone. “I am happy training alone. When I am on that line, I am alone with my thoughts, my arrow and my bow. If you are unable to do that successfully on your own in practice, you won’t be able to do that in competition.”

 

Good as gold

Mather was shooting his highest scores before traveling to Japan and was feeling very confident about making the podium at these Games. The day of the eliminations proved he wasn’t wrong. “I didn’t go there to lose.”

The elimination day was long and with some rain. The first round of matches were in the morning until lunchtime. Mather faced Patru Eugen of Romania in the first round. He won 7-3. He then had a break of more than four hours before moving on to the second round. “It was hot and humid, and I tried to relax and not think too much.” 

Finally, the wait was over and his new opponent, Gholamreza Rahimi from Iran, was waiting in the arena for the second round. “We got into the matches that matter. They all matter. You had to win them all to get the gold. But they started to happen more quickly” Mather said.

Before the start of this match, Mather had an equipment failure. The nocking point of his bow came untied, and he had a few minutes to reset before the match started. He tied it up and entered the arena. “My coach who was with me handed me my backup bow.  And I said, ‘no I am shooting the other bow.’ But he is like, ‘but you just told me that the nocking point on that one…’ ‘I know how to tie nocking points. It’s going to be fine.’ ‘Clearly you didn’t, because that one fell off.’”

After the fifth set shooting with his newly repaired bow, Mather and Rahimi were tied at 5 set points each. A shoot-off decided who would advance to the quarterfinals. Mather shot first. He hit the inside ring of the 10. Rahimi shot next, a 9 to the right that gave Mather the win.

Kevin Mather won the next two matches and prepared for the gold final against Zhao Lixue. 

Mather won the first two sets against Zhao. In the third set, they tied the score and split the points. Zhao won the fourth. In the last and fifth set, Zhao shot 10,10,8. Mather shot 9,9 and a 9/10 liner. It came down to an arrow called. Luckily for him, it was a 10. “[It was] a weird way of winning because I won by tying the set which pushed my points to 6. I would rather have won the set and made it easier to tell.” Mather said.

 

Celebration

For Mather, the award ceremony was amazing and it presented its own challenges. Changing uniforms for the award ceremony was one of them. “It’s hard when you are sucking wet to get socks and shoes on in my paralyzed feet.” But he managed to change on time just to be placed in the wrong spot heading to the podium. 

“Behind backstage they lined you up in the order you are supposed to come out, and they kept putting me in the wrong spot. I’m like ‘No, I won. I’m the gold medal’ And they are like ‘No, you are here.’ It took them like three or four times [to realize] and then they were like ‘Yeah, you are gold medal.’ That was pretty funny to me.”

With everyone in the correct place and with uniforms changed, the ceremony started. “Once I was on stage, there were a lot of emotions, proud and happy. ‘Holly crap, I did it.’ It kind of sinks in.”

After a very long day, Mather went for a celebratory ice cream in the Village. “I was so exhausted that that was kind of it.”

With this medal, Mather hopes to bring more visibility to the sport. “I didn’t know para archery was a sport until I started shooting it. I think there is still a lot of work to do in the US to change the perceptions that go along with Paralympic sport. I just continue to try to do work to change those perceptions and that’s all we can do.”

Mather has only one regret after all this amazing  experience. “After we got home I kind of wished I asked them to keep that flag. That would have been really special to have. Maybe in Paris I’ll remember.”

With the next Games already in his head, Mather is preparing for the Pan-American Championships in Chile this November, the only competition that will give spots for the Parapan American Games of Santiago 2023.