Tag Archives: Athlete

First Paralyzed Athlete Competes in Archery at the Olympics

woman sitting on a chair helping her young son shoot a bow and arrow

Even though archery is one of the oldest sports in existence, it is still practiced  and played today. In recent years it has increased in popularity  and  is observed on May 14, the second Saturday in May-National Archery Day . In honor, I’m sharing about a woman who was disabled and very talented in archery. Her name was Neroli Fairhall and she was the first paraplegic athlete to compete in the Olympics. I initially heard about her listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Womannica. I was so intrigued I’m retelling her story. Hopefully  after reading this post, you will feel the same. So, let’s get started.

Riding Horses and Accident

Neroli was born in 1944 in Christchurch, New Zealand. Since childhood, she was very physically active   and rode horses Even competing in local horse-riding events. But that all changed in 1969 when she was in a motorcycle accident. As a result, she  was paralyzed from the waist down. She was 25 years old and it seemed her life and career was over. I could definitely relate to this experience because I lost my vision at 25 as well. When you go through a traumatic experience  it can definitely appear that  things are over for you. That all you knew and understood  comes to a crashing halt. But this is not the end of the story.

Archery Becomes New Sport

Neroli reinvented  herself and tried a new form of athletics. She got with Eve Rimmer, who was at the time New Zealand’s most famous disabled athlete. Eve was paraplegic too and encouraged her to try shot put. Neroli realized she could still participate in sports. She discovered she had the aptitude and personality for archery. In order to participate one must be focused and calm under pressure, have a good eye, And  a competitive spirit. She had all the above.

First National Championship

In 1976, Neroli competed in her first national archery championship and placed third. Three years later,  she was on the New Zealand national team. Just one year after that, she was at the Olympics, winning her first national title.

Although a historic accomplishment Neroli never made it to the archery range. No one from her team did. Led by the United States, 66 countries, plus New Zealand, boycotted the Moscow-hosted Olympics in protest of the Soviet-Afghan War. Neroli was heartbroken. But she quickly regrouped  and  went to the 1980 Paralympics in Holland. She won a gold medal and set a world record in the double FITA rounds, an intensive form of target shooting.

Competing at Brisbane

In 1981, Neroli won her second national title, and was named to the New Zealand team for the Brisbane Commonwealth Games. It was the first and only time that archery was included in these Games. And Neroli was the first disabled athlete to have ever competed in any event. She competed in the double FITA. The four-day event begins with each archer shooting 144 arrows. This means 36 each at four different distances. The top 24 competitors then enter a grand round. Nine arrows, at each distance. Winner takes all.

Older man in wheelchair practicing archery
Older paraplegic man in wheelchair aiming with bow and arrow on archery training

On Neroli’s first day at Brisbane, she fought with the wind, finishing twelfth. But she persisted, and the next day, pulled herself up to fourth. The third day, she was third. The final day there was a standoff between Neroli and Janet Yates, a teenager from Northern Ireland and the favorite.

Janet Yates led. most of the day but  began to crack under pressure during her final 3 shots. Neroli stayed calm. After much deliberation  and a recount, It was determined by officials Neroli won the gold medal.

Made the Olympic Team with Challenges

In 1984, Neroli’s Olympic dreams finally came true. She made the archery team. But being the Games’ first paraplegic athlete proved hugely difficult. First, her steel wheelchair set off multiple alarms at airports and competition venues. Resulting in an inspection of every part of her chair even the air-filled cushion she sat on. Second, reporters circled her , each trying to get the scoop on her historic appearance. Finally, her execution was lacking. Neroli finished 35th in a field of 47. Perhaps  this less than stellar performance  was partly due to the little support for disabled athletes  competing internationally.

More Olympic Competitions and Final Years

Still, Neroli would go on to compete in four Paralympics, five world championships, and win a total of five national titles. A shoulder injury halted her final Olympic attempt in 1996. During the final years of her career, Neroli coached elite New Zealand archers, and served as an administrator for disabled sports. Neroli died in 2006, at the age of 61.