I never dreamed I could be an athlete, until I became a paraplegic.
During my service in the Israel Defense Forces’ Armored Corps reconnaissance unit, I used to run a few kilometers. But that whole chapter ended when, at age 23, I lost the use of my legs and sustained a host of other injuries and troubles after an Egyptian shell exploded just behind my back on October 18, 1973 – the 12th day of the Yom Kippur War, for which I had been called up as a reservist.
The change began during my rehabilitation. Our physiotherapists were good to us, meaning they were hard as nails. Our wakeup exercise was to climb a rope to the ceiling and down again, hands only – remember, we were paraplegics – at least twice. But what wouldn’t we have done for that approving glance and half-smile.
What pushed me after the injury was both anger at the whole world and my need to prove that, even though I was disabled, I could do things just as well as the next guy – and even better. Much better.
I was injured after finishing my first year at Hebrew University and found the campus basically inaccessible when I tried to restart my life. So, I sought a stricter framework to make me get out of bed in the morning: I enlisted in the Israel Police – the first wheelchair-bound person ever to do so.
At first, the human resources department had said no because, according to an old Ottoman regulation still on their books, police officers had to be able to ride a horse. They finally let me in and later I even checked that horse-riding box for them.
Some two years after my injury, I discovered the Beit Halochem rehabilitation centers. It wasn’t a love of sports that got me there, though. The Defense Ministry had sent me for tests at the Wingate physical education institute, and on my way out I picked up an attractive hitchhiker. She told me about Beit Halochem, but what interested me most was the fact she was a lifeguard there. I started to go religiously, and still do to this day.
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A few years later I met my life partner and we went to Boston for a few years to study. I tried some disabled sports that were new to me while I was there, including horse riding. I went canoeing in the summer and sled skiing in the winter. I also met Vietnam vets and we started training in martial arts for wheelchair users.
After my partner gave birth to a new member of the family, we returned to Israel with our 4-month-old redhead. I wouldn’t call that sport, but her arrival did require reaching new levels of endurance.
Head of the fox
In my first visit to Beit Halochem after our return home, I saw something radical: people sitting in wheelchairs or on stools next to standing athletes, not only training together but competing with each other as equals at a particular sport: archery. I was enthralled by it all – the equality, individuality, antiquity of the sport, and the upper body strength and stability it imparts.
Trained by the late Yoram Solomonovich, in just a few years I found myself competing in overseas tournaments. I took part in the World Disabled Veterans Games in 1993 at the renowned Stoke Mandeville rehab center in Britain. There aren’t many archers who are war veterans, and I won silver medals in two different categories at that competition. Did I mention that I don’t necessarily follow the ancient Jewish adage “Be a tail unto lions, not a head unto foxes”? Head of the fox works for me.
About 30 years ago, I discovered an entire world around the sport: the organization, management and judging of competitions. When I decided to join an archery judging course, my coach’s response was one I had heard many times before: why bother? You won’t actually be able to become a judge. How would you move on the grass in a wheelchair to check the targets? And how would you check the hits, when the top of the target is a few heads taller than you?
But the more someone tries to stop me from doing something, the more determined I get. I finally convinced the coach to let me take the course “out of curiosity.” I was the only one who completed it.
Then, in 1994, I took the international judging course in St. Petersburg, Russia. The course instructor was the late Don Lovo from Canada, a leading figure in the sport. Don was not very tall. Let’s just say I didn’t have to lift my head to look him in the eye.
Toward the end of the course, Don called me aside. He had one question: “How will you be able to assess the hits in the upper part of the target?”
Sound familiar? I placed my hands on the armrest of my wheelchair, raised myself up, and looked down at him.
“What was the question again?” I asked.
He mumbled something and walked away. I was one of four people who qualified as an international judge from that course.
After my first posting to the panel of judge for the Summer Paralympics in Atlanta, I judged at least once a year – usually twice – in European championships and world championships, as well as at the subsequent Paralympics in Sydney and Athens. I met archers from China, Mongolia, Russia, all over Europe, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon and the Americas.
My wartime experience came up, in a way, with the head of the Jordanian delegation to the veterans’ games at Stoke Mandeville. As we were riding into town for an afternoon outing, he suddenly asked if I had fought in the Battle of Karameh between Israel, the Jordanian army and the PLO – which was where he was injured. The irony would have been great, but the answer was no. That battle was in March 1968, five months before I was drafted.
One year, a team from Iran joined the Winter Open competition in Belgium. They were new to the rules and surrounded me for consultations so often that my Israeli friends jokingly threatened to report me to the Shin Bet security service.
During my judging career, I also initiated the establishment of a committee in the European Archery Federation to promote accessibility at general competitions and to integrate disabled archers in them.
There used to be a good deal of opposition to integrating disabled archers into the general competition, mostly from nondisabled archers who seemed to be worried about the competition. In Israel, this wasn’t an issue because, from the start, the sport integrated both groups due to the small number of suitable venues.
Does a wheelchair-bound archer really have an advantage over a standing, nondisabled archer, as opponents claimed?
Far from it. For example, many wheelchair-bound archers have trouble even putting the bow together. Over time, though, we found that by looping a rope on each end of the bow, placing it behind our back, and pushing forward with one hand, we could string it independently. Of course, this solution didn’t suit everyone – quadriplegics, for example. They even have to be belted to the wheelchair at the shoulders so they don’t fall over from the weight of the bow when they raise it.
One thing that fascinated me about quad archers was their creativity in developing aids to overcome their weak fingers so they could pull the bowstring and release it at the right moment. A Japanese archer I met built an apparatus that was attached to his arm, with a pneumatic system and a tube between his teeth to hold the bowstring. At the right moment, he inhaled, sending the arrow flying to the target.
Arm amputees are another group of disabled archers. And if you think archers with no arms is wild, how about blind ones? Their desire and will to compete led them and their coaches to devise a variety of solutions in Europe. The simplest was for the coach to stand behind the archer, physically aiming him or her at the target and telling them when to release the arrow. Judging at a competition in Belgium with blind archers from Britain, France and Belgium, I ruled this out because the archers weren’t actually doing the aiming.
It was a British team that came up with a solution: the blind archer steps into a U-shaped apparatus on the floor with adjustable vertical arms. They move the arms right or left, up or down, release the arrow, and the coach informs them where it has hit, continually re-aiming and doing all the work. And so blind archers were accepted into the International Paralympic Association.
Managing their competitions, by the way, had some unique advantages. They were the only ones who never complained that the field’s angle was against the rules or that the sun was in their eyes. And what about archers who were “only” vision-impaired? According to the rules, they all had to wear blindfolds.
The downside for me was that after every round in these competitions, I had to wheel myself to the target line to record the score and mediate disagreements. This meant pushing my chair some 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) on grass every day. A few years ago, my shoulders gave out and I had to give up judging. I’ve had three shoulder replacements in the past decade.
The day after my first surgery, a physiotherapist asked why I had needed the operation. As I recounted my story, I wondered aloud whether a wiser person would have given up this activity and the exotic travel that went with it.
Her response: “But you enjoyed it, didn’t you? I’m sure it was worth it.”
She was right. It was sometimes painful, and always hard. But I know that if I hadn’t been injured in those accursed Sinai sands, I wouldn’t have been challenged and so thirsty for these experiences – and remain so today.
Aaron Dov Vamosh served in the Israel Police as a training officer in the Bomb Disposal Squad. He is the volunteer travel consultant for the Israeli Umbrella Organization of Associations for the Disabled, and a lecturer on disabled travel and accessibility at international conferences.