Navy Veteran Andre Shelby Becomes First African American to Compete in Paralympic Archery
By Brittany Ballenstedt
Paralyzed Navy veteran Andre Shelby traces his journey to the Paralympics back to a single phone call.
It was 2004, and Shelby was recovering in an intensive care unit at a Virginia hospital. Doctors had informed Shelby – who at that point had served more than 18 years as a boatswain’s mate in the Navy – that a motorcycle accident had paralyzed him from the chest down. Shelby had just re-enlisted in the Navy for two more years, but the injury meant his career would be cut short.
“The hardest part was adjusting to all of the other circumstances, as we had just bought a new house in Florida the year before, and then here I was facing this injury,” he says.
Yet a visit from an emergency room nurse to Shelby’s room in the intensive care unit is what he credits as setting in motion a team of people who would advocate on his behalf – and prove to him that life could still be lived to the full after injury.
The nurse made a phone call to a friend of hers, a Navy SEAL paralyzed in a training accident, who, after visiting Shelby in the hospital, in turn made phone calls to his connections to ensure Shelby had the care and support necessary to recovering from a traumatic injury.
“That one phone call the nurse made a heck of a difference,” Shelby says. “It was this circle of events and people who helped me transfer to the VA in Tampa, and once there, I had Paralyzed Veterans of America, social workers, psychiatrists and an entire team who made the transition really, really smooth.”
Shelby adjusted back to civilian life, continuing his care in part with a team of recreational therapists at the Tampa VA Medical Center. Therapists encouraged Shelby – who had been an athlete from childhood to high school and beyond – to attend the National Veterans Wheelchair Games
– co-presented by Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Department of Veterans Affairs – in Minneapolis in 2005.
“The Wheelchair Games were where things really started to take off,” Shelby says. “I remember not only being a competitor, but an observer. There are some incredible athletes who go to the Wheelchair Games, and I learned so much by just watching their techniques. It was extraordinary to see how other veterans – many with higher-level injuries than mine – could accomplish so much.”
Shelby poured his energy into sports, trying nearly everything he could, from basketball to water skiing to horseback riding. By 2009, he discovered archery through a clinic hosted in Tampa by two Paralympians. He instantly knew he’d found his niche.
Andre was picked up by more military camps, and by 2011, he competed in his first Warrior Games, where he won a gold medal in archery. “It all took off from there, once I got accustomed to how it worked, the rules and how tournaments were run,” he says. “But it took a lot of practice and patience to get there.”
By 2015, Shelby’s hard work had qualified him for competition on the world stage: the Parapan Am Games in Toronto, where he won gold in archery, and the World Championships in Germany, where he placed sixth, just one match away from the gold medal competition. Earlier this year, he also became the first disabled archer to medal against able-bodied competitors at the SoCal Showdown in Chula Vista, Calif.
Shelby will once again make history at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, where he’ll compete as the first African American to compete in archery. The goal: bring home a gold medal for his country and family – his wife of 28 years, Marilyn, as well as four adult children and six grandchildren.
“It’s hard to say what my goals are beyond Rio, but I know I’ll take a break for a while to focus on my family,” he says. “One thing I do know is I’ll never be done with archery 100 percent. I’ll keep trying to get better and competing against the best in the world.”
Shelby also aspires to one day move into a coaching role, one that would allow him pay forward what so many have done for him – encourage and pave the way for full life following a disability. Success in sports has bled over into other areas of his life – including leading his family as a husband and father, and achieving an Associate’s Degree in biotechnology at Florida State College of Jacksonville in 2012.
“Sports keep you busy to the point that you don’t have time to think about what your problems are,” he says. “Playing sports – whether basketball, handcycling, bowling, whatever it was, there was always someone else who was less fortunate than I was. There’s no need to complain because if they can get out there and do it, there’s no reason I can’t.”
Paralyzed Veterans of America congratulates Shelby and all veterans and people with disabilities competing at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sept. 7-18.