Matt Stutzman just wanted to put a bit of food on the table for his wife and his three sons. Born without arms, he found himself out of work in 2009 and hardpressed to land a job.
“People would tell me, ‘If you had prosthetic arms, I’d hire you,’ ” Stutzman tells PEOPLE. “I’d tell them, ‘Just let me prove I can do this.’ But no one wanted to give me a chance.”
So Stutzman, who had begun to grow depressed that he “wasn’t doing his part” to provide for his family, came up with an idea that initially left plenty of folks in his hometown of Fairfield, Iowa, scratching their heads. The woods and countryside were teaming with deer and Stutzman figured if he could learn to shoot a bow, he could put a couple hundred pounds of fresh meat in his freezer.
“Problem was I had no idea how I was going to do it,” laughs Stutzman, who not only learned how to shoot a bow, but is competing this week as one of the world’s top archers at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio. “I Googled ‘How to teach an armless man how to shoot a bow,’ but I couldn’t find anything.”
Instead, he started watching online videos, studying the technique of other archers, then trying to translate it into something that could work for him.
“I’d watch people with arms shoot and I would visualize that I was an able-bodied person,” he recalls. “If they were holding the bow with their right arm, I would hold it with my right foot. I just tried to recreate what it would look like if I had arms and it just so happened, that it worked.”
He set up a target in his backyard and spent the next two weeks practicing. Word soon spread what Stutzman was trying to do and before long locals started showing up to watch.
“They would line the whole block,” he says. “I had to learn very quickly how to block them out because I knew that if I missed the arrow would go ricocheting across town and who knows what would happen then.”
This sort of focus is typical for Stutzman, who was put up for adoption by his birth parents when he was 4 months old. He credits his adoptive parents, who raised him on a farm with their seven other children, with convincing him that he could do anything he set his mind to.
“They believed they could adapt me to the world, instead of having the world adapt to me,” says Stutzman, who grew up shooting holes in pennies from 50 yards away. “They taught me how to visualize handling different situations. It wasn’t always easy at first, but they were awesome parents and because of them I pretty much did whatever I wanted.”
So it was hardly surprising that after two weeks of practice he went out into the woods and soon had over 200 lbs. of deer meat in his family freezer. Stutzman intended on hanging up his bow after that initial hunt, but instead he spent the next two years practicing his technique for upwards of eight hours a day with the intention of becoming “the world’s best archer.”
In 2012 he earned a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Archery Team and won silver in at the London Games. Three years later in December 2015, Stutzman landed in the Guinness Book of World Records when he hit a target from 930 feet, shattering the previous record – by an able-bodied athlete – by 274 feet.
“The world is pretty much a blur of opportunities for me now,” laughs Stutzman. “I can pretty much walk in anywhere and they’re like, ‘Hey, do you want a job?’ It’s awesome.”