Five-time Paralympian John Cavanagh announces retirement
John Cavanagh’s shoulders aren’t what they used to be.
The repetitive nature of three decades at the highest level in archery will, eventually, take a toll. Cavanagh, 64, represented Great Britain from the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games through to Rio 2016, setting records in 2004 on his way to W1 gold and following that up with a silver medal at Beijing 2008.
After competing in five successive Paralympics, he had his heart set on retiring at the conclusion of the Games this summer in Tokyo.
But with the upcoming Paralympics now postponed until next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with no sign of his ongoing shoulder injuries letting up, Cavanagh announced earlier this month that he has decided to call time on his career.
Known internationally for his kindness, intelligence and respectful persona, John’s absence will be noticeable for the international para archery community.
“I just physically can’t shoot anymore,” he said. “It’s very, very painful, and it inhibits all of the muscle activity. It’s just really difficult for me to hold a bow up nowadays.”
Cavanagh tore a tendon in his left shoulder a few years ago, and he has sustained similar damage on the right-hand side as well.
He would have been willing to endure the pain under normal circumstances, he said, but after evaluating his personal health and the questionable state of the Paralympic Games, the only conclusion he could come to was to retire.
“I just didn’t see any point in trying to push through to next year with painkillers and so on just to struggle through,” Cavanagh said. “That’s not how I want to carry on.”
Cavanagh’s introduction to archery followed a skiing accident in 1989 when he underwent rehabilitation for a spinal cord injury sustained after falling down a cliff in the Swiss Alps.
A gradual improvement to his health allowed him to begin practising with the British Wheelchair Archery Association, and his involvement with the sport grew from there.
By 1995, his natural talent and love of competition took him to the European Para Championships in France. He soon became an ambassador for Archery GB and the British Paralympic team.
Cavanagh has participated in every World Archery Para Championships since they started in 1998 – in the W1 category. After sustaining an injury that took away so much, archery helped fill the void, irrevocably changing the trajectory of his life forever.
“I never thought of myself as being an international athlete,” said Cavanagh, who was 33 years old when he first started shooting. “It wasn’t a planned thing. I never intended for this to happen.”
Cavanagh claimed Paralympic gold at the Games in Athens in 2004 when he beat Sweden’s Anders Gronberg, 108-102, in the W1 men’s final. The performance rounded off a memorable competition for Cavanagh, who set a Paralympic record of 164 points for the 18-arrow 70-metre match earlier in the eliminations.
After his success in Athens, Cavanagh collected silver at the 2008 Games in Beijing and later reached the quarterfinals when London hosted the Games in 2012, creating a homely atmosphere for the well-travelled veteran.
It was at those Games where Cavanagh witnessed the Paralympics reach a level of prominence that rivalled the Olympics.
There was little support and plenty of empty seats at his first Paralympic Games in Sydney in 200, he said. But 12 years later, in London, both the Olympic and Paralympic archery venues had capacity crowds throughout.
"One of the great things about archery is that it doesn't really matter who you are, you can be on the same path as an Olympic champion," Cavanagh said. "There's not that many sports where you get that much integration."
Over the span of three decades, Cavanagh has witnessed the evolution of the Paralympic movement and archery’s place within it. The transfer of governance from the International Paralympic Committee to World Archery, he said, has resulted in para archery’s enviable status as a division that is placed on-par with able-bodied competition.
“When I first began, we had the world championships and the European Championships, and that was it. There were no other international tournaments available,” he said. “But as the years went by, they increased. Now we have a calendar and a regular circuit we go on and hopefully, that will continue to progress, too.
He leaves a sport and a movement that are stronger now than when he entered it.
“John’s knowledge, experience and passion for the sport, not to mention his achievements within it, are outstanding,” said Archery GB’s Paralympic performance manager Tom Duggan in a news release.
“None of us would be here, doing what we are privileged to do as a staff and athletes, without the hard work and achievements of people such as John, so we owe him a big debt of gratitude.”