Lee Ford-Faherty is a Paralympian.
She’s not a Special Olympian.
She’s not a Para Olympian.
She’s a Paralympian, which means she’s one of the world’s great archers, as well as a woman who was paralyzed in her left leg as a result of a herniated disc. Did this stop her from belly dancing? No. Performing with fire? No. Shooting arrows? Hell no.
Her story is one of remarkable courage and perseverance. Her take-no-shit attitude resonates. Wanna question her credentials? Duck. Wanna mock her accomplishments? Duck twice.
Lee Ford-Faherty, you are a champion. And a Quaz.
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Lee, you’re gonna hate this question, which makes it a good Quaz starter: When I was younger we used to play the game, “Which sport could you compete in to make the Olympics?” And even though I was a good runner, I always picked archery. It just seemed like, with a year of nonstop practice, it could be mastered. You sit, you shoot—bingo. So … how dumb was I?
LEE FORD: Fairly dumb! A lot of compound archers try to make it to the Olympics by switching over a couple of months before trials and it’s just not enough time, even for high level pro shooters. It takes 10,000 hours to master something and that doesn’t just happen in one year. A female compound archer switched over last winter for the 2020 Games and I think she has a real shot. She’s being real about the amount of time you have to put in to make it to the top. And she was No. 11 in the US before switching, so that took a lot of courage. The fact that I made the Paralympic Team within three years of deciding to make it to the Games is just unheard of in terms of Olympic archery. And I didn’t know this at the time, but you needed to earn a slot for your country the year before, so it was a battle in 2011, two years after starting archery as a serious athlete, that I won the gold medal at the Para Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. That meant the USA had a slot. We went home for Thanksgiving, and a couple of weeks later I had the first of my now three spine fusions. Four months to the day after that, I got on a plane to go to trials and win that slot for myself. Which I did.
J.P.: On April 11, 2005, a herniated disc left you paralyzed in your left leg. It was the result of an old speed-skating injury. So … I’m riveted. What happened? When did the paralysis hit you? What were your emotions? Fears?
L.F.: Speed skating is not the right sport if you have EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome). It’s a joint hypermobility disorder that meant I dislocated very easily. I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve dislocated or sprained or severely subluxated my shoulders, my right elbow, my knees, my ankles. I remember doing these horrible exercises for speed skating off the track called “plyometrics” and I remember doing jumping jacks in the speed skating body position. It was horrible and my back went POP! all of a sudden. It resolved itself a few weeks later when I had a bad fall on the track (I skated inline roller speed skating at the time) and when I got up off the floor, I could finally stand up straight again. So I think that injury followed me until the incident in April, 2005.
I was a very active and popular belly dancer in restaurants and parties in Atlanta, avidly practiced Wing Tzun Kung Fu in the EBMAS system, was a fire performer and was very trim and in shape but I had sciatica! What person in their 30s has sciatica?! Apparently a person with EDS who had a ticking time bomb in their spine just waiting for the perfect storm. Which turned out to be picking up my purse off my futon while a sneeze hit me. I thought I had been shot! But it was the disc rupturing, causing Cauda Equina Syndrome. The only recourse with that is surgery, it was agonizingly painful, but most people recover. I unfortunately develop tons of scar tissue internally from the EDS so I didn’t have the recovery that one would hope for. I was extremely scared for my life and independence with my daughter. I was a single mom then, her dad constantly looked for any excuse to claim I was “unfit” (he has yet to apologize for calling a Paralympian an unfit mother) so I was super afraid I would lose her. At the time, I didn’t know that I only had a 50/50 chance of walking again. The surgeon told my sister this but she kept that information from me for a few years. Which was smart, because my dumb, happy self never thought that I wouldn’t walk. I just assumed I would have to work really, really hard. Which I did. (Are you sensing a theme?)
J.P.: Um, just read an article that included this: “This is a woman who to this day includes performing with fire among her favorite activities” and that you love “belly dancing.” Um … please explain.
L.F.: So before I got hurt, I was very active. I still am, but I have a lot of limitations to work around now. I can only do so much activity before I’m in the wheelchair for the rest of the day. but belly dancing is what saved me. I was in great shape, my core was super strong, so that really helped my recovery. I still dabble in belly dancing but I can still do a lot of my fire performing since that’s mostly upper body stuff. I’ll breathe fire for you one of these days. I’m a Sagittarius in my moon and sun so archery and fire, it can’t be helped! 😉
J.P.: So save for some bow shooting as a kid, you were never into archery into 2008, when you went to an archery club. Why? What got you there? Why archery?
L.F.: My friend Stephanie really disliked the guy I was dating at the time she started taking me to her archery club. We had all done a fire performing routine earlier in the winter and she was not his biggest fan as to how he treated me. I wasn’t either, but I didn’t know what to do about it at the time. She said she wanted to get me out of the house, I had stopped almost all performances and just went to work and came home. I was in pain a lot of the time and even doing bit parts was really hard. So I went to archery, and I had shot a compound bow, instinctive or barebow, and they hand me an Olympic Recurve set-up bow which is very different. I asked them “what do I do with this?” and they said, “Point it that way and shoot.” I fell in love!
There is such grace and beauty with a well-executed Olympic shot, it’s just a marriage of strength and timing and form and mental game! I love it still and I love that I’ll be shooting until the day I die. I teach several archers in their 70s and Miss Jean, who I coached, shot a national record at the Senior Olympics before being afflicted by a stroke. She kept shooting! She passed a while ago but competed and won a gold from her wheelchair the summer before she passed! When I grow up, I’m going to be as tough as Miss Jean! And now I’m teaching Miss Helen, who at 77 is just taking up archery for the first time. She loves it and it’s amazing to see her passion and determination. So I have hope that my body will let me shoot until I leave this world. That’s how I want to go.
J.P.: I know you’re from Georgia, I know you once competed in roller speed skating. I know you were first moved by the 1976 Olympics. But … how did this happen for you? Soup to nuts? Were you super athletic as a kid? Did you have an ah-ha sports moment? Were your folks jocks?
L.F.: I was always a dancer as a child! Formal ballet schooling, tap, jazz … I ate it up with a spoon. It gifted me with a ton of body awareness, or it at least really sharpened a natural skill. But I was not a sports person! Even with skating, I started lessons with my whole family as a dance skater. I got into speed skating as a bit of a rebellious thing, different from my brother or sister. But I learned so much from being on the speed team that it helped me when it came time to be on an archery team. You really can make it or break it depending on who your teammates are! I’ve had good ones and bad ones but you stick up for them cause they’re your teammates. My parents were not sports people, they were fabulous dancers. Especially my mother. She would dance with her friend Mary, she and her husband Bill were friends with my parents, and man … could those ladies cut a rug! Dance is very athletic, but it’s not jock-ish. The funny thing about my childhood is that I was the opposite of a jock: I was super sickly every winter, I would stop being able to eat. They would bribe me to drink water. It was the Crohn’s Disease but we didn’t know it at the time. There are pictures of me from a Christmas when was about 10. I was literally nothing but skin and bones. You see that picture and wonder how the hell I was even standing up. I saw that picture as an adult and apologized to my mom for putting her through all that worry. But when she passed away, she knew I was happy and healthy, so that helped me a lot during the grieving process.
Oh, and I was a city girl growing up. I grew up in Philadelphia. My dad would just take us to the woods all the time, we love nature. But work was in the city so it was always that struggle to find time to get out of town and breathe country air.
J.P.: I love questions like this, so I’ll ask—you’re ready to fire. What, specifically, is going through your mind? I mean this very literally. Your eyes are looking ahead. What’s the brain doing?
L.F.: My brain is literally doing nothing. I don’t aim, unless I have to aim off in the wind. The only thought in my head, so that I only have that one thought and nothing else, is “Back tension, LAN 2. back tension, LAN 2.” LAN 2 is a term we use to describe the middle of the back of your arm that is holding the string. It continues an angular movement that starts with the draw. But I don’t think about it, or anything else if I can help it. I can’t have a conversation while I’m shooting unless it’s between shots. And do you have any idea how hard it is to empty your mind? It’s really hard, but focusing on just one thought is what really helps me. Back tension, LAN 2.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your sports career? Lowest?
L.F.: Greatest was winning the gold in Guadalajara! It actually was a shock. I was really in the zone but thought I was shooting like hell. I thought the scoreboard was wrong! I finished an end and put my bow down and told the coach that they needed to fix the board, it had me in first place before we started that last end. She said “Smile and wave, Lee, you just won!” I now know what it means to be flabbergasted.
Lowest moment was in Toronto at the 2015 Para Pan Am Games. I was ready to compete, felt like I could defend my title, when the mix up on my classification form meant that they wanted to reclassify me. It was horrible! I go through classification and the guy who was in charge tells me I should be on the Olympic team, not the Paralympic team. You’re disabled but not disabled enough. What the ever living f___? To be sent home, not being able to support my teammates, to not being able to compete, was a really shitty deal. I get that there are countries who game the classification system, but I don’t. My disability is real and it interferes with my ability to do archery and be competitive with able-bodied athletes. Shooting sitting down may be safer and better for my spine but it’s a lot harder to shoot when it comes to archery! But somehow sitting down levels the playing field and I have to compete able bodied? It makes no sense and World Archery and the IPC need to be a little bit more real when it comes to Para athletes. They’ve destroyed a lot of careers, including mine.
J.P.: Your bio says you love going to Burning Man. I’ve been toying with the idea—but I’m 45 and cruddy. Sell me. Why should I go? What do you love about it?
L.F.: Burning Man or even one of the regional events, I can’t say enough how amazing it is! Figuring out the logistics (no pay to play camp for me!), from getting there, getting all your stuff there, what to pack, what to wear! It’s dizzying in scope, especially when you go as a group with friends, or just meet people there. I camp with The Philadelphia Experiment, I found them the first year I went and they took me in as a displaced Philly girl and we made art and magic and music! Burning Man is held in one of the harshest environments on the planet and 60,000 of your closest friends just don’t survive the playa, they don’t just thrive on the playa, they party! There are amazing classes to take, art to see, music for dance and hooping and fire and chilling. I recommend two things for every human: Go to the Olympics/Paralympics and go to Burning Man. People bring their families, they have the Kids Village, if a child goes missing the entire Black Rock City shuts down and every person on the playa looks for that child. Burners aren’t just friends, they’re family. Go!
J.P.: I hate to sound like a dick, but I don’t think most Americans view the Paralympics with the same heft of the Olympics. And I wonder—do you? Should we? Do you think people fully understand the Paralympics? What are folks missing?
L.F.: No, you don’t sound like a dick, it’s true. Americans for the most part don’t know what the Paralympics is until they meet a Paralympian. And becoming a Paralympian isn’t easy. It’s just as hard as the Olympics, and we’re starting from having to overcome a disability first, then we work on training and competing. I think Americans really need treat Paralympians with the same respect and honor, and officially we get that, but the average Joe on the street doesn’t know about us or confuses us with the Special Olympics. That gets annoying. No, I don’t get a medal for just showing up, I have to work my butt off and compete at the highest international level. When people introduce me as an Olympian or a Para Olympian, I say no, I’m a Paralympian, we’re better. The tattoos on my arm are about educating everyone who sees it about the Paralympics. They know the rings, but what are those swoosh things? Those are the Agitos (Ah-gee-tos) which symbolize the Paralympic Games. They are Latin shorthand for “I move” so the three Agitos say, “I move, I move, I move” and the Paralympics are “Spirit in Motion”! And then people get it about the Paralympics.
The problem is that we don’t get the TV coverage that the Olympians get. You want stories of guts and perseverance, just pull the first Paralympian you see and ask them what they overcome to be able to compete. Olympians haave nothing on us in terms of inspirational back stories. But I think networks think people will be uncomfortable watching physically disabled people compete. They’re dead wrong. Para sport can show how capable we really are! Channel 4 in Britain had the Paralympics on 24/7 just like the Olympics and it totally changed the way that the English view disabled people. Johnny Peacock is a huge star there now! (track and field) If we could get the same out of NBC then I think you would see some real interest and the viewing audience would love it. Watching wheelchair rugby, aka Murderball, is a blast! I didn’t miss a match by USA in London, because most of their games were when I wasn’t competing. It’s non-stop action and those guys are all quads in some way! They’re insane! It’s tons of fun to watch and wheelchair rugby is the only team that travels with its own welder to fix chairs and wheels. Fact!
So it’s not really America’s fault that they’re missing out, it’s the TV coverage we get. NBC dropped the ball on us over and over again. There’s an Olympic Channel but I don’t even get basic cable so I haven’t seen it. Can’t speak as to how the coverage is. I know some World Archery World Cup events have been on there, though.
J.P.: On December 14, 2011, you had your spine fused because of herniation and scar tissue around the nerve root as it exited the spinal cord. Throughout my life I’ve heard, “You never want your spine fused” at least 10,000 times. What did spinal fusion feel like? What was the impact?
L.F.: December 14, 2011 was just my first fusion. December 17, 2013 was the second fusion, also low back and December 23, 2015 was my neck from C4-C6.
Yeah, I’ve heard that saying and the caveat is that you don’t want your spine fused until you want it fused. I have a lot more stability now and I know that I’m not going to damage those areas of my spinal cord anymore. After the first one, until all the scar tissue grew back, it was great. I hurt like hell and my nerve damage was just insane at first, but after the healing process really had some time, I felt better. Then the scar tissue grew back. Turns out I’m internally keloid. After the second fusion I started having these weird spasms that would make my legs stop working and I would go down. Just straight to the floor. Someone can brush up against me, trigger a spasm, and I fall. It’s not as bad anymore but still happens on a regular basis. The neck fusion was the worst! I had to stop archery for the longest time after that one, I just couldn’t pick up my bow! Plus I can’t turn my head anymore, hard tissue fusion will do that, so it changed my whole sight picture when I shoot, when I aim my sight. But, hey, I shoot able bodied now! (sarcasm) I needed the surgeries, my spinal cord was compromised so they had to be done. I look at it this way, if it extends the number of steps I’ll be able to take before I have to use my wheelchair full time, then I’m all for it. I have EDS so someday I may need a chair full time but I’ll fight it tooth and nail. (FYI: no one is “wheelchair bound” – we’re not tied into it in some weird bondage thing. We are also not “confined” to a wheelchair. Being a wheelchair user isn’t confining, actually using my chair helps me go to places and do things that I normally wouldn’t be able to do. So we’re wheelchair users, doesn’t matter if full time or part time.)
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LEE FORD-FAHERTY:
• Ford is such a simple, lovely last name. Then, when you married, you got Faherty. Which seems like Flaherty. Did this screw your world up in many ways?: Not really until it became time to change my passport and my entry name was changed with World Archery and the rest of the world. It was actually the first compromise of my marriage that I would be Ford-Faherty, I wanted to change to Faherty and John insisted that I stay Ford, said it was my athlete name, like a stage name and I should keep it. Its Ford on my uniform shirts, and Ford-Faherty everywhere else. I go by Lee cause no one can pronounce my Irish first name down South so I go and get an even moreIrish name like Faherty! We’ve both had our DNA done and Galway, Ireland is our genetic community so I am proud of Ford, and want to visit Faherty’s Pub in Galway.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Ray Charles, boba, Jennifer Hudson, Brent Barry, Samsung TVs, Jeff Fabry, Firefox, “Return of the Jedi,” Dwight Howard, electric eels: Well I have to say that people always come first before things so Ray Charles, Jeff Fabry, Boba, Dwight Howard (ATL!), Jennifer Hudson, Brent Barry (looks like an ex, only shorter) Jedi, Samsung, electric eels. Eels freak me out, I tend to not take off my silver bracelet when I’m scuba diving so I get paranoid one is going to get me!
• Tell me three things about your daughter:1: Shelby is named after Steel Magnolias, since the movie reminds me of my diabetic mom, but she would return from the grave and haunt me if I named her granddaughter “Doris”. 2: She is great with animals and loves cows. Like actual cows. She’s debating to either be a food animal vet or a meat scientist. I’m still not sure what that is. 3: She’s the smartest person I know. She was able to re-teach me trigonometry in a way that I actually understood and could do.
• Who wins in a thumb fight between you and Barbra Streisand?: Me. I have burly hands from archery and I’m freakishly flexible. I could take on The Rock.
• How did your husband propose?: Over the phone. We were living long distance but he wanted to take care of me and Shelby. With the whole custody thing …
• Five reasons one should make Perry, Georgia his/her next vacation destination: 1: We have the Ag Center, as we call it, or as everyone knows it the Georgia National Fairgrounds. I describe it as the big thing on the side of Interstate 75 when you’re driving from Atlanta to Florida. Rodeos, SCA events, 2: The Georgia National Fair (seriously, even school is closed that week), 3: our downtown is historic with cute shopping. 4: We’re central to the state so there’s a lot to do in any general direction 5: we have an archery club with ridiculously low instruction fees and bow rental and you get to shoot archery with a Paralympian 😉
• You’re a public speaker. I will pay you $5 to work “Mr. T,” “eat the moth” and “fuck the world, I’m blingin’” into your next talk. You game?: I’m totally down. You haven’t heard my adult version of my motivational speech where I quote Betty White and tell them to “V up!”
• What do your husband’s shoes smell like?: My husband has absolutely no smell at all. It’s weird.
• Your dog Leo is adorable. What’s the worst thing he’s done?: He’s a service dog who is retired, he went deaf. The worst thing he’s done is poop on the carpet in the hallway cause he had to stay home along too long.
• Celine Dion calls. She’ll pay you $200 million to spend the next 300 days as her private archery teacher. The only conditions are you have to shave your hair, officially change your name to “Celine Dion Ford II” and cover yourself in honey and dead crickets every morning on the job. You in?: I don’t have a good head to shave my hair off. I’d likely shoot her five days in and I don’t think I could claim it was an accident. At my level in the sport of archery, if I shot you, it’s on purpose.