Adrenaline junkie Anderson achieves Rio dream
“I’m a wild child. I think I’m the wildest child here. I live on the edge and I’m an adrenaline junkie.”
The words of Shaun Anderson, South Africa’s archer at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Twelve years ago, Shaun came off his superbike, badly injuring his left arm. Seven years after that, he found something else to pour his passion into.
“My son actually wanted to shoot a bow, so we went to the bow shop and shot a bow and he said, ‘dad, can I get it’, and I said, ‘fine, but if you’re gonna do it, I’m gonna do it’,” Anderson explained.
Without the use of that left arm, which had to be kept in a sling, Shaun had to invent a way to shoot his bow without much local help. He trawled the internet for inspiration and eventually taught himself to shoot using a mouth tab, material attached to the string which he could bite down on while he pushed the bow away with his right hand to come to full draw.
It was just five months before Shaun entered a major event being held in South Africa, close to his home in Pretoria.
“My friends, they all laughed at me and said ‘Shaun, you’ve only just been shooting’,” he said. “I won it.”
“To this day I still don’t know how I did it, and it was then I realised that there was more to the sport.”
Shaun said he walked into the office of Barbara Manning, his coach in Rio, and told her he wanted to go to the Paralympics. The archery bug had bitten him.
“When guys are 40 they run away with a mistress or buy a superbike,” he said. “I decided to take on a journey to the Paralympic Games and I don’t regret it one bit.”
“At that time, they were still choosing the team for London but I knew I wasn’t ready to go to London, I didn’t have the capability. I wasn’t at that level to compete against the best in the world.”
Shaun launched himself at full throttle towards Rio.
With the support of his family he stopped working in the car dealerships they own and started training six, even seven days a week. He knew, he said, that he had to put in the work.
Shaun’s first world championships appearance came in Bangkok in 2013, where he finished 33rd. Two years later, in 2015 in Germany, he shot in the worlds again – but his left arm was no longer in a sling, it had been amputated.
“I started getting difficulty with what was left of the arm because I had no feeling and no sensation. Amputated a year and a half ago and never looked back since. Wish I’d done it sooner because there’s no pain anymore,” Shaun explained.
Germany, he said, went well – but there was more that needed to be done:
“I realised coming back from Germany to level the playing field against the other guys I would have to come up with something. So I looked at all the different release aids that I saw, and I concepted my own that I thought worked for me the best.”
Shaun did away with the mouth tab, and moved to a brace – a frame attached to his left elbow – with a custom release aid, designed and manufactured at home with a friend, which triggers via a clothes peg sitting in his mouth at full draw.
“The first two months I wanted to go back to the mouth tab because it just didn’t want to work for me, and now I’m happy,” he said.
“The brace has just changed everything, it’s levelled the playing field for me. I can stay in the shot longer. If the wind picks up it’s not a mission for me anymore, if the wind picks up. I’m very chuffed.”
In Rio, Shaun unveils his release aid, new technique – and an incredible appetite for the Paralympic journey – in competition.
“I’m as hyperactive as you can get. My teammates will tell you I’m the crazy one in the team. I believe you live once and you gotta enjoy life, you gotta respect everyone out there and you gotta have fun. Enjoy what you’re doing, love what you do,” he said.
For someone so alive on high-tempo activity and energy, archery might not have been the obvious choice – and wasn’t always the easiest. Shaun learned discipline, put in routines with sports psychologists and said he has to work hard to find the place he needs to be in to compete.
But in that place, he also finds the adrenaline he admitted he thrives off.
“I go into this little bubble and I feel like I’m in water, and it’s just unbelievable. I just sit there. You don’t hear the music, you don’t hear the people around and that just takes over,” he explained. “It’s amazing when you get that experience and it’s hard getting to that.”
Shaun said that people in South Africa who watched the Olympic archery competition had told him that they had no idea how intense archery could be.
“It’s make or break. It’s not like you’ve got another heat, if you lose you lose. You’re out. You can be the best in the world, but you can be taken out by the lowest ranked archer,” he said. “That’s the rush, that intense pressure – I live on that vibe.”
During the Opening Ceremony, Shaun was one of a number of South African athletes pictured leaping into the air with the the crowd.
“Going into the stadium the other night… I felt like a million bucks. To be in Rio, living my dream, is unbelievable,” he said.
Anderson has more than just his own competition in mind. At home in South Africa, as well as training, he finds time to coach, run programmes in disabled schools and coordinates para archery nationwide.
“My passion is trying to get people into the sport. Disabled, abled, I don’t mind, whatever,” he said.
“I’m hoping that the exposure from this, it will put lights on in peoples’ heads back home and they realise that there’s more to being disabled than maybe playing wheelchair basketball, that archery’s also an option.”
Shaun wants more para archers to join him representing South Africa at the next Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2020. He wants to find a partner for the mixed team event and some more compound men to compete in the open team competition at the World Archery Para Championships.
Rio might have been Shaun’s dream just weeks ago – but his dreams have already taken him further.
“Now my dream is that I’d love to podium, and I know it’s vain, but yeah, I’d love to podium,” he said. “I’ve got the capabilities and anything can happen on the day.”
And when he gets back to South Africa, he said he’ll be back doing what he does, working to grow archery, at the only speed he knows. Fast.
“When I get back from Rio, I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me.”
The para archery competition at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games starts on 10 September in the Sambodromo.