Lia Coryell: The life of being a rebel

Lia Coryell

Never in a million years did the USA Para archer imagine that someone like her would compete on the world stage. Now, not only is Lia Coryell aiming for her second Paralympic Games, she’s also an inspiring role model to those around her. 

Resilient, strong, defiant.

Those are just a few words that could describe Para archer Lia Coryell. But when the Wisconsin-based athlete describes herself there is one word she uses: a rebel.

“I'm not resilient. I'm rebellious. I am a rebel,” Coryell said proudly. “People don't expect me to achieve. They don't expect me to succeed. And it blows their world away because they don't have hope. They don't have expectations.”

Coryell comes from a large family of eight siblings – five brothers and three sisters, who she helped care for from a young age. Growing up in a world of poverty and spending time in the foster care system, she knew what it felt like to be ‘a left behind’.

Wanting to take charge of her life, wanting something different for herself, at the age of 17 she enlisted in the army. However, at 19, she was medically discharged unable to safely fulfil her military duties - and then four years later she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).

Coryell would go on to raise two children as a single mum, earn four degrees (Recreation, physical education and health, education, research and information science and adult education) and become a Paralympian when she represented the United States as their first female W1 archer at Rio 2016 – reaching the bronze medal match in the mixed W1 event.

Throughout the last 56-years around the sun, as Coryell says, there have been many lessons learnt but the most important came during her six months in the military.

“There are three things you learn in the military; you're stronger than you think you are, it's about team and nobody gets left behind. I was the left behind kid. My brothers and sisters were the left behind kids growing up,” she said.

“I learned to be a leader and I learned not to leave anybody behind.

“I wouldn't be who I am right now if I hadn't struggled every single step of the way. What is easy for me now is to lead but I didn't want to lead until my butt ended up eight inches off the ground.”

© USA Archery

You’re more than a diagnosis

For Coryell, as someone, who for a long time, was just seen as a person with M.S, she knows that she is much more than that.

“M.S. was a key part of my identity and I see that time after time… don't let your diagnosis become your identity,” the archer said. “That's why adaptive sports are so important for so many people because it gives you an identity other than being broken.”

It wasn’t until Coryell was in her 50s that she picked up a bow.

The only female W1 archer in the western hemisphere discovered archery after the young veterans she worked with in her job at a university were invited to sports-clinic camp for wounded veterans but didn’t want to go alone.

“They said, ‘well, you're in a wheelchair, we will go if you go’. I'm like ‘I am a middle-aged woman’,” Coryell recalled. “So we went, and we tried different sports every day.”

At the time, Coryell wouldn’t know the journey she was about to embark on and the people she would inspire along the way.

“It's a very mental sport,” she said of archery before adding: “There's a cadence, there's a rhythm and there's a timing to everything. You can't think about all the rest that's going on in the world.”

Originally, her goal was just to make the national team, which had never had a W1 athlete before but to do so she would need to classify. During a tournament, an assessor made her do all these movements to test her ability – she couldn’t do any of them.

“I was in tears. The whole process made me feel more broken than what I thought it was. I couldn’t do what he wanted me to do. When I came out, I said, ‘what is exactly W1? The guys on the team said, ‘well you're the most impaired, you're the most broken’. I said, I don't want to do this anymore.”

“I'm just getting used to being in a wheelchair. I don't want to do it if I'm the most broken one.

“But my coach said to me, ‘Lia, this will give you a platform, you're a leader. People follow you. I don't know why, but they do. They're going to follow what you do. And there's going to be hundreds, if not thousands of people that are going to see you competing and you're going to change their lives. This is your platform. This is your opportunity to change the world’.”

And Coryell has done just that. After making her Team USA debut in 2015, she went on to compete at both the World Archery Para Championships and Parapan American Championships before qualifying for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games – just 14 months after starting training.

Then last year, she was elected to the USA Archery Board of Directors and is on the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee's (USOPC) Athletes' Advisory Council. It is a historic appointment because, for the first time, able-bodied athletes chose a woman in a wheelchair to represent their interests.

The power of tik tok – visibility matters

Social media can be a powerful tool.

With the ability to not only keep connected to each other, it also opens up new doors. One of those is visibility.

“I like tik tok, not all tik tok but some tik tok,” Coryell said. “I’m like, we need to promote [the sport] with the Paralympic Games coming up, with our trials coming up here in the USA and hopefully get people started in archery.”

The first video Coryell posted was of eight-year-old Honey, who was born with a brachial plexus injury, and John, whose arm was amputated at the shoulder, shooting off the back porch with the Paralympian coaching from her wheelchair in the background.

Starting with just 36 followers and two videos, in a mere 24 hours her video had over a million views, and that only continued to climb.

“Think of all those millions of people. There are over three million people that have never seen anybody shoot a bow with adaptations patients and they just saw three of them.”

Continuing the fight to the podium

Despite the year Coryell has faced, she is determined to return to the Paralympic stage.

Unable to leave her house due to being in a high-risk group for COVID-19, the Team USA member was confined to her apartment when the world went into lockdown nearly a year ago. Without seeing anybody for weeks, it literally broke her heart and she suffered from pericarditis, which is an inflammation in the tissue that surrounds the heart.

“It happens to autoimmune compromised people from stress. As you can see, I'm a very social person. I'm very energised by people. And I was completely devastated that I couldn't be around [people]. I got it under control, cleared it up, did great through the whole summer.”

Venturing out during the summer months to the army base, which was an hour drive from her apartment, she finally shot outside – until then she’d been shooting arrows down the hallway.

“I've never shot higher scores. My coach would come up every once in a while, but nobody saw it,” she said, before adding about her experience with COVID-19: “But I tell you, when I was in the hospital and I couldn't breathe on my own and I couldn't move on my own, I wasn't thinking correctly.

“I knew it would suck but I never thought it would nearly kill me.”

Taken to hospital due to back pain and heart palpitations, the Paralympian tested positive on 6 November.

After battling COVID for two and a half weeks – rundown, weak and sore – she tested negative and returned home. But three days later, things took a turn and Coryell ended up back in the hospital struggling to breathe.

“I had bacterial pneumonia in both of my lungs, and I went into a fib, had severe bouts of tachycardia and my blood pressure was through the roof. I went into heart failure and beginning stages of kidney failure,” she told Tokyo 2020.

“There were a few times there where I thought I was done. I've been fighting this disease for 30 some years and I'm tired. I'm tired of fighting. I'm tired of being behind the eight ball.”

But recalling that moment, Coryell said there was a reason why she never gave up fighting.

“I think of the notes, the pictures and kids and people that come up to me and they say things and I'm like, ‘if you quit, you're negating everything you've done in your lifetime’. So I'm like, all right, keep fighting. And I did.”

After almost 10 weeks – plus a staph infection from shingles – on 17 January, Coryell stopped all medications. Despite permanent damage to her heart and kidneys, she’s declared: “It’s go time now!”

It was back to the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center in mid-February as she prepares to head to Mexico in March for the Monterrey 2021 IV Parapan American Championships PG CQT, where she will try to win the USA a quota spot for the women’s W1 event at Tokyo 2020.

Coryell, who is one of the oldest members of Team USA, admitted to tanking “terribly” at the 2019 Para Archery World Championships, which was the first opportunity to secure a spot at Tokyo 2020.

“I have to go to Mexico to win a spot for Women’s W1 for the United States to go to Tokyo. And I fully intend on being there,” she declared.

While Tokyo 2020 could be the last Games the world sees Lia Coryell the athlete, it most likely won't be the last time she is on the Paralympic stage. The archer has aspirations to continue but this time from the coaches box.

"Realistically I think Tokyo will be my last opportunity to compete as an athlete so I am moving forward with the mindset that Tokyo will be my time to shine and my golden opportunity to medal," she said.

"I enjoy coaching and I am working with a talented archer and future Olympic hopeful named Cameron so I may just be hanging out in his coaching box in Paris!"

Whether it is out on the range or coaching the next generation from the sidelines, one thing is for certain Coryell is a leader, a Paralympian, a mother, a sister but most of all a rebel.