Day after day, week after week, Andre Shelby wheels his way along the path near the St. Johns River.
The bows and the arrows and the targets are there. He unloads and assembles the bow, gathers the arrows, wheels over to his next stop and places the target, then gets ready to take aim, again and again.
Nearly two decades after an accident that changed his life, the Jacksonville resident is heading to Tokyo this month is a chance to defend his gold medal at the Paralympic Games.
A quest for gold, made in Jacksonville.
“If you’ve got a dream or something you’re really shooting for, don’t give up on it,” he said. “There’s people that will help you along the way. There’s so much support out there.”
Shelby, 54, is scheduled to depart for Japan on Wednesday ahead of his second archery competition at the Paralympics, traditionally held during the same year and in the same city as the Olympic Games.
In Tokyo, Shelby will be one of two Northeast Florida residents on course to represent the United States, along with Daryl Walker in the Paralympics sport of goalball.
It’s a routine he’s kept up for years — one year longer than originally anticipated, after the coronavirus pandemic pushed the Paralympics back into 2021, just as the Olympics endured a similar delay.
In 2016, he didn’t know what to expect.
In 2021, he returns as a gold medalist and reigning champion.
Shelby still thinks back to that deciding round in Rio de Janeiro five years ago, entering his final round, anxiously watching the standings with the United States team’s coach and suddenly realizing just how high his score had risen.
“We kind of looked at each other like, ‘Wow, I have a medal, right?'” Shelby recalled. “And my coach said, ‘Yep. Win or lose [in the final round], you’re going to win a medal.'”
Shelby made no mistake. His final round brought home the gold.
ROAD TO THE PARALYMPICS
In his early years, long before the Paralympics entered his radar, Shelby spent plenty of time in the athletic world.
He competed in a multitude of sports, ranging from baseball to football to tennis, while growing up in Indiana. That discipline and drive for physical fitness ultimately led him toward a career in the U.S. Navy.
Then, in 2003, everything changed.
He was riding a motorcycle in Virginia when he was involved in a crash that severed his spinal cord. In an instant, he had become paralyzed from the chest down.
Shelby began his rehabilitation at a Veterans Administration hospital in the Tampa area, and moved to Jacksonville shortly afterward. Those experiences also connected him with Paralyzed Veterans of America, which supports a range of programs for veterans, and with the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
During the course of his therapy with Brooks Rehabilitation, he discovered the thrill of archery.
He had lost his mobility — but not his passion for competition.
“When I found out Brooks had all their programs, it helped me get back into a more normal environment, into being able to do things again,” Shelby said.
By 2012, he decided the time was right to participate in a Paralympics tryout — and he learned just how much more he had to learn about his new sport.
“I was nowhere near ready,” he said. “It was really back to the drawing board.”
But by 2016, Shelby had improved enough to take on the world’s best in Paralympic archery.
As the competition unfolded, he realized he had more than just his own hopes riding on his performance. Archery, it turned out, wasn’t going the way Team USA had hoped. By Shelby’s final rounds, he realized he was likely the nation’s last chance for archery gold in Rio.
His on-target effort from there made the difference, but it was close: Each of his final three knockout contests — against Andrey Muniz de Castro of Brazil, Jonathon Milne of Australia and finally Alberto Simonelli of Italy — came down to a single point.
“It’s kind of a lot of pressure, being the last one, and if I don’t win, we’re not winning,” he recalled. “It was kind of rough, but I was able to meet that obstacle and battle through it.”
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PLANNING FOR TOKYO
To shoot for gold in Tokyo, he’s been investing countless hours at the range in Jacksonville.
Reigning champion or not, Shelby isn’t taking anything for granted.
A typical training routine runs for about three to four hours per day, five days a week, in the heat of the morning and early afternoon at North Florida Archers. There, he shoots for the bull’s-eye at Tillie Fowler Park near Naval Air Station Jacksonville.
Under Paralympic rules, archers may compete with different types of equipment depending on their classification. In Shelby’s case, that means shooting with a compound bow, rather than a recurve bow like those used in the Olympics.
“It’s just to keep up your consistent form, perfect timing, stuff like that,” Shelby said. “You have to keep that timing and that rhythm.”
Now, he’s counting down the days until Tokyo, where he’s one of seven representatives for USA Archery at the Paralympic Games.
He’s cleared the obstacles before. He’s ready to do it again. And, this month, he’s planning to use his Paralympics experience to help his teammates find their own targets.
“Once we get there and we get settled in, and we all get to shoot a few arrows at the venue, we’ll be ready to help each other out, whether it’s nerves or it’s strategy,” Shelby said. “We’ll be support for one another to shoot the best we can, and hopefully bring home some more gold.”