Thanks to covid-19, both the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics were postponed to 2021. That means the competitors will have another whole year to train and prepare for their events in Tokyo.
And however disappointing, it’s just one more bump on the road for the Paralympics athletes featured in the new documentary “Rising Phoenix,” which opens on Netflix this weekend. Directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, the documentary showcases the trials and triumphs of several U.S. Paralympics athletes, each of whose story is more heroic than the one before.
One of its stars is Matt Stutzman, born without arms but, beating the odds, not only learned to shoot a bow and arrow with his feet, but became so proficient that he turned Olympian.
Stutzman insists he only took up the sport on a lark, adding that in 2010, while trying to figure out a way to support his wife and children, he happened upon an archer on TV.
“As far as being accurate is concerned, I think it was within weeks. I made [some shots] at 20 yards and all my arrows were touching. I thought everybody did that,” Stutzman says, not at first realizing just how gifted he was. “Within the first seven months, I was shooting really high scores that would have gotten me on the Paralympics team. But I [kept shooting] eight hours a day. I was committed to this.”
His practice paid off. Stutzman took silver at the 2012 Paralympic games in London and in 2015 set a world record by hitting a target at a distance of 283.47 meters (930.04 feet).
Another star of “Rising Phoenix” is wheelchair racer and skier Tatyana McFadden, who was born with a spina bifida that left her paralyzed from the waist down. McFadden, who was born in Russia, was given up at a young age and adopted by an American couple.
Despite showing athletic promise in high school, McFadden was told that she couldn’t compete on her school’s track team, but she successfully sued to allow her to race with able-bodied runners. She went on to collect a host of medals in wheelchair racing, but then, seeking a new challenge, decided to try cross-country skiing at the 2014 Sochi Paralympics.
“It was so hard to learn the finesse and technique of the sport. I had the endurance and the strength from wheelchair racing, just not the technique,” McFadden said of tackling both Olympics seasons.
But at first she struggled, with even friends suggesting she keep her focus on the next summer games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I made the team by excelling in the cross-country sprint. It was remarkable being named to the team,” she said.
Not only was McFadden’s family cheering her on in Sochi, Russia, but so too was her birth mother, whom she hadn’t seen in years. (They have since kept in sporadic touch over email.)
Accordingly, McFadden sees her story as not only an American success but inspiring for all people with disabilities. “Rising Phoenix,” she said, shows “the positivity of adoption and the positivity [that] people with disabilities can get an education, they can travel the world, they can get a job.”
“It was just a cherry on top to win and get a silver in the cross-country sprint,” she said. “I think I shocked everyone. But my family, they believed in me.”
As much as these extraordinary athletes have accomplished, they still had to contend with the rather typical pitfall of teasing schoolmates growing up—and even as adults contend with people who don’t understand they have the same hopes, desires and dreams of people with all of their limbs.
“I learned to just shrug it off, not pay attention, not care what they say,” Stutzman, the archer, said. “People say things they maybe do not mean, but for me the best way was just to ignore them, not retaliate.
“There’s a lot of people who look up to me and what I do, and the last thing I need is to get into a situation where I’m on the news saying stuff I shouldn’t.”
The results, he believes, speak for themselves. Once he began collecting medals at the 2012 London games, the doubters were struck silent.
“That all went away almost immediately,” he said.
McFadden, who has advocated for years for the handicapped community, initially came onto “Rising Phoenix” as a producer, but directors Bonhôte and Ettedgui suggested she also be a participant given her visibility in the athletic community.
“As a first-time producer and a featured athlete in this film, I felt it was my responsibility to advocate for those in the disability community to help excel in their craft,” she said, which included pushing to hire crew members with disabilities and ensuring that the sets were also handicap-accessible.
McFadden had planned to compete at the 2018 winter games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, but a blood-clotting disorder kept her stateside. And in 2020, she is forced again to stay home as coronavirus axed sporting events the world over, including the Tokyo games.
“It was tough news, but the Paralympics is such a large sporting event and is interested in the health and safety of everyone,” she said, adding that she continues to train on her own.
Added Stutzman, who also mentors young athletes who, like him, have no arms: “I have another year to make sure I’m ever better than I was gonna be this year. [The pandemic] has also allowed me to spend way more time with my family,”
McFadden said that with the Olympics mothballed until 2021, it’s the perfect time for an inspiring sports documentary like “Rising Phoenix.”
“What this film represents is that it’s OK to have a disability because you can excel and become whatever you want to be,” she said, adding that she believes sports can be a balm even during tough times. “I hope [audiences] feel inspired by how strong we are.”
“Rising Phoenix” will be available on Netflix starting today.