Jess Stretton describes what it is like to be a teenage wheelchair user who just happens to be good at archery. Very good, in fact. She already has a world record to her name and has her sights set on gold in Rio, having made it through to the quarter-finals of her W1 compound event.
My name is Jess Stretton. I am 16 years old, I live in Hemel Hempstead and I’m about to take my GCSEs. So far, so good, you would think. I sort of live another life though – I’m a Paralympic archer for Great Britain, vying for a medal in Rio, and I recently broke the W1 Open Compound Event world record at a shoot in Dubai.
I’ve had cerebral palsy since I was born, and have been wheelchair-bound for most of my life. To be honest, I’d adapted to the lifestyle a long time before archery came into my life.
I first encountered the sport through a junior camp, which had lots of different activities on offer. I tried archery and fell in love immediately – I’m not sure how good I was initially but I certainly enjoyed it. I went back to try it again and it took off from there.
At first, it was all just a bit of fun. I would shoot with other people on a casual basis. Before long I was recruited for the GB academy process. That was when I first met my coach, Rikki Bingham. There was a W1 initiative for people in my archery category. W1 is a category for people with impairment in their arms and legs and, as it was quite a new category, they got all the people together who they thought had potential and trained us for a couple of months. After that, we either went into the academy or straight on to Team GB. I went through the academy and, after a couple of months, was moved on to a squad category known as podium potential.
It was all moving pretty fast. Suddenly I was shooting abroad for Team GB. Representing my country at the age of 16 is incredible. When I went to my first competition, it was funny because I’d never flown before so I had to be accommodated specially what with me being in a wheelchair. My friends tried to joke with me and make me feel a little better about it all, but I was still pretty concerned about ending up at the bottom of the ocean.
It’s also bizarre to be competing in some far-off country at the weekend before heading to science class on Monday morning. After breaking the world record, I went to my lessons and my teacher was like: “Oh my God, congratulations, but now have you got your Maths homework?”
That’s a strange switch – it sort of feels like the archery was a dream. It can be quite a challenge: most of my school-friends get time to do homework and revision after school, but I train five days a week. It’s a two and a half hour trip to the training centre, which means a lot of lifts are owed to my parents.
It wasn’t really until I won my first gold medal in Holland last summer that I realised I was pretty handy with a bow. Team GB had taken me as a development trip to get a feel for international events, and I ended up winning the competition. As amazing as that was, I think the pinnacle was breaking the world record in Dubai. I didn’t realise I’d broken it until the head coach came up, high-fived me and said: “You just set a world record.” If I’m honest, I was just aiming for a personal best.
I always try to focus on shooting as well as I can instead of getting overawed by the competition. It can be quite hard to stay focused in the middle of an event, though, so I just think it’s about finding a ‘happy place’. I reckon I’ve found mine – by reading. You shoot six arrows an end and then wait, so I usually read something before my agent comes back with my arrows.
It also helps calm my nerves before the shoot. During my medal matches, I’m usually shaking so badly that I can’t see the target. That’s a problem when you’re trying to shoot a tiny arrow at it. Rikki, my coach, is a huge help, especially in medal matches as she calms me down and keeps me from having a complete meltdown.
All this preparation culminates in Rio but, above all, it’s always been my aspiration to shoot that perfect 720 score. If Olympic medals or international competition comes along the way, that’s a great bonus. Until then – it’s game on.