PHOENIX — A lifetime of hunting, hours of tinkering with a one-of-a-kind device and years of practice has led Eric Bennett down a road his 15-year-old self would have thought impossible.
Yet when Bennett competed in the 2012 London Paralympic Games, the experience was bittersweet.
The engineering and physics teacher in the Dysart Unified School District placed fourth in the world in archery in the Men's Standing Recurve Division at the games.
He didn't bring home a medal, but the 38-year-old is fine with what may be his final Paralympic performance.
"I feel happy and at peace with how I performed," the two-time Paralympian said. "It was a little sad not to come home with a medal."
Bennett, who lost his right arm in a car crash, said he plans to put his competitive career on hold to focus on spending more time with his family.
Bennett struck out in the semifinals, losing a bid for the gold medal to the top-ranked archer in his division with a score of 2 set points, while his opponent scored 6 set points. He later lost the chance to win bronze with a score of 0 set points compared with the 6 set points earned by the bronze-medal winner. After the last semifinal rounds Sept. 3, Bennett met up with his wife, Rachel, who had cheered him on in the stands.
She is the only one who saw how truly disappointed Bennett was to come home without a medal.
"We embraced, and he cried. He told me, 'I was so close. I was so close,'" she said.
Despite the loss, family and friends describe Bennett as an underdog you can't help cheering for.
Bennett worked his way to the upper echelons of archery in Paralympics in eight years, switching divisions and bows along the way.
In 2008, he qualified for the U.S. Paralympic archery team in the compound-bow division and competed in Beijing. He placed ninth.
This year, he competed in a new division with a standard recurve bow devoid of the compound bow's pulleys and cables.
Bennett's journey from a crippling injury to mastery of archery has been a combination of creativity, support from friends, love for the sport and sheer competitive spirit.
He credits his father, an avid hunter, for instilling a love of archery in him at a young age. Family hunting trips and his love affair with archery came to a screeching halt at age 15, the day a vehicle swerved in front of the car he and his father were driving on a camping trip. Their car rolled, and in the moments before it came to a stop, it crushed his right arm.
"I figured I would never shoot again," Bennett said.
Bennett learned to play baseball and tennis with his left arm. He often competed and bested able-bodied friends in sports.
Still, he didn't venture back into archery. He was convinced the sport was out of reach; shooting without both arms seemed unimaginable.
Ten years after the accident, his father helped spark Bennett's interest in archery again. Instead of shooting an arrow with his hands, Bennett's father found a way to design a compound bow that rested on its side. Bennett and his father created a release device he could control with his feet. The bow's aim wasn't good, and the release method was clumsier than what he uses now. But at the time, that didn't matter.
"It allowed me to go hunting with my family again," Bennett said.
He started to fine-tune the bow. He switched from the foot release to a mouth-tab release, which opened the door to competitive shooting. The mechanism is a short rope attached to the bowstring that an archer can control by mouth.
"You bite down on it and pull back the bow string, then open your mouth to let go," Bennett said.
In 2007, at the para-archery world championships, Bennett lost to an archer who used a shoulder-mounted release rather than a mouth tab. With the help of his father, Bennett created his own shoulder release: a metal bar that rests on a strap that he lays over his right shoulder. A hook attached to the bar snags the bowstring.
As he takes aim at a target, Bennett rests his chin on the bar, always intently focused. Bowstring pulled taut, he triggers the release of the arrow by biting down on a cable. Most paralympic archers create their own release tools, Bennett said.
"No injury is the same," he said. "There are so few of us that prosthetic companies don't make them."
That resourcefulness and intuitive knowledge of the tools he uses is part of what makes him a desirable archery coach, said Adam Stringham, 18, who trained privately with Bennett for three years before moving to Provo, Utah, to attend Brigham Young University.
"He taught me to work with equipment so that later I could fix it without his help. He made me self-sufficient," Stringham said.
Bennett said he hopes to continue archery coaching and hasn't completely ruled out future competitions. However, the costs of travel, training time and equipment are too expensive for that to happen anytime soon, he said. His bow cost $2,500. A dozen arrows goes for about $600.
Bennett first is determined to spend more time with his son, Logan, 6, and his daughter, Natalie, 3.
"Who knows, maybe I'll show up and scare everyone at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games," he said.
Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com
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