Much attention is being paid to the 30th anniversary of the 1984 Olympic Games, which opened July 28 in Los Angeles three decades ago. But also 30 years ago today, America’s Paralympic golden moment in shooting was playing itself out in Stoke Mandeville, England.
It was there that a 26-year-old Roger Withrow would rise up and seize his golden opportunity. One of six Paralympic shooters competing for the USA, Withrow captured the gold medal in an Air Rifle Prone event by shooting a world-record score of 397/400 and defeating Frenchman Michel Pelon by one point. The event also included the incomparable Swedish competitor Jonas Jacobsson who finished eighth during that event then but has amassed 27 Paralympic medals throughout his career.
“There’s not much that comes close emotionally to receiving an Olympic or Paralympic gold medal,” Withrow reflected. “Being on that podium when they played ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was a life- changing moment for me, about two-thirds of the way through it I suddenly felt the gravity of our great nation on my shoulders. It was then that I realized that the gold medal I had just won was not mine at all. It became everyone’s medal who is a citizen of the United States. Wearing the uniform that had USA on the back was an incredible feeling knowing all my hard work paid off.”
Since shooting became a Paralympic event in 1975, just 30 athletes have ever competed as part of Team USA. Withrow, double bronze medalist West Brownlow from 1984 and 2004 silver medalist Dan Jordan, the current head rifle coach at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), are the only three medalists America has ever had. In a country known for its shooting prowess, Withrow remains the only one ever to have captured a gold medal. Something he’s both happy and saddened by.
“It has changed my life for the better and I have been able to mentor others since. Knowing that my success has perhaps helped someone else’s life become a little easier is a great feeling. Yes, it’s cool to have a record as such; however, it’s also sad knowing that we haven’t brought home more hardware. I know we have people out there who have the heart, desire, dedication & drive to bring home more hardware. I challenge any and all who think they are capable of doing so.”
Paralympic shooting has struggled to take off in the U.S. with depth and funding being the biggest contributors. A team of 10 U.S. athletes recently competed in the 2014 International Paralympic Committee (IPC) World Championships, evidence that great things are in store for a Paralympic program that came under the purview of USA Shooting for the first time after the 2008 Paralympic Games. Mike Tagliapietra (Fond du Lac, Wisconsin) and McKenna Dahl (Arlington, Washington) earned two Paralympic quotas for the U.S. as a result of their shooting and brought hope that, with a year remaining, the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team for Shooting will include more than two participants for the first time since the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
A Wyoming native, Withrow is a 1976 graduate of Rawlins (Wyoming) High School. While at RHS, he shot with the junior rifle club and ended up earning a scholarship to Murray State University. Withrow helped lead the Racers to an NCAA Rifle championship in 1978 while winning the high-powered championship that same year. Ironically, he earned his gold medal one day after another great Racer, Pat Spurgin, earned her Olympic gold medal in Los Angeles.
“I was wanting to try to get on the 1979 Pan-Am Games. With me shooting real well in 1978 in high-power I decided to go for it,” he said in a 2011 interview with the Rawlins Daily Times.
While working in the spring of 1979, Withrow was smashed by a truckload of pipe and was flown to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and spent the next 18 months in rehab.
“I pretty much knew at that time I was a paraplegic,” he said in that Daily Times interview. “It was a heartbreaker. What else can I say? I was at the top of my life at that time and all of the sudden someone knocks the blocks out from underneath me.”
Withrow recalled watching the 1979 Pan American Games from a hospital bed.
Through his disappointment, he decided to get back to shooting and started the Wheelchair Shooting Federation in 1980.
The satisfaction he derives from that gold medal 30 years ago and those he’s introduced to the sport affirms his decision to continue pursuing shooting after his injury
“Never give up your dreams; once you find something, hang on to it and take it for a ride, because you never know what the fruition will be,” he was quoted as saying in the Daily Time interview.
Image courtesy USA Shooting