For many, teenage years consist of incomplete maths homework and the gradual realisation of impending responsibility. While Jess Stretton knows that world well – the 16-year-old recently finished her GCSEs in Hemel Hempstead – the rest of her life is not so ordinary. Through to the quarter-finals of the W1 women’s individual archery at the Paralympics on Saturday , she is a golden prospect in Rio. It is a remarkable ascent in the face of what could have been a debilitating condition.
“I’ve had cerebral palsy since I was born, and have been wheelchair-bound for most of my life” she says. She first discovered archery at a junior camp in 2012, aged 12, and soon fell in love with the sport. “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.”
Stretton progressed with ease through the various stages of training, but ParalympicsGB remained relatively unaware of her potential until its sent her to the Netherlands for the 2015 Para World Ranking Tournament. Selectors had taken her “for experience” but Stretton shocked everyone to win individual gold. “I don’t think I quite realised how handy I was with a bow until that happened,” she says.
Seven months later, she found herself shooting at the Fazza International Para Championship in Dubai alongside several of her heroes. Unfazed, she claimed silver and set a world record for the W1 open compound category. Her maturity is apparent in her description of the event: “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.”
Stretton is aware of the unusual nature of her situation. On a Sunday, she might be shooting for world titles before, on Monday, returning to school in time for chemistry. “After breaking the world record in January, I went to my lessons and my teacher said: ‘Oh my God, congratulations, but have you got your homework?’”
Stretton’s route to the top has invariably been challenging. Her condition presents obvious difficulties, while the frequency of training sessions – every night after school at Lilleshall National Sports Centre in Shropshire – means she relies heavily on her friends and family. “My parents are phenomenally supportive. They drive me to all my training, which is usually a four‑hour round trip, and support me abroad as much as they can.”
She has lofty heights to scale in Rio, but says she is unperturbed. Having successfully navigated her GCSEs, gaining her entry to sixth form, set a world record and won gold at international level in 18 months, she is taking the Paralympics in her stride. “My friends are all pretty impressed I even made it to Rio. So I suppose it’s game-on from here.”