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Why Lia Coryell, the Paralympic Archer, Is Still Here

LA CROSSE, Wis. — From across the archery range, Erich Mueller spotted the woman in the wheelchair wearing a shirt that said, “I Hate Running …

Why Lia Coryell, the Paralympic Archer, Is Still Here

LA CROSSE, Wis. — From across the archery range, Erich Mueller spotted the woman in the wheelchair wearing a shirt that said, “I Hate Running,” and knew he had to meet her. Stifling a laugh, he introduced himself to Lia Coryell, and she smiled and called him Honey.

Soon, she started coming when Mueller and his teammates on the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s club team practiced, doling out snacks and advice. Calling herself Team Mom, she stayed at their hotels for tournaments. Then she asked if they needed a coach.

“But Lia’s more than an archery coach,” Mueller said. “She’s become my life coach.”

Last year, Mueller learned he had cancer and he knew that if anyone would understand, it would be Coryell. Like him, she knows what it’s like to live on a timeline.

Coryell, 56, has progressive multiple sclerosis, a chronic, incurable disease that affects the central nervous system. When she relapsed seven years ago, landing in a wheelchair, doctors advised her to halt occupational and physical therapy, placed her in grief counseling and urged her to settle her affairs — because tomorrow, they said, will never be better than today.

Since then, she has gone downhill skiing in Colorado, learned to play sled hockey and taken flying lessons in a Cessna — and blossomed into a world-class archer. As she readies for her second consecutive Paralympics, Coryell’s preoccupation is not clustering arrows from 50 meters but giving of herself — her energy, her support, her time. Driven by her own trauma, a toxic childhood, she finds purpose in being the person who wasn’t there for her, in offering in abundance all that she never got.

She has been that person for Mueller. Her reaction to his cancer diagnosis — we’ll get to that later — changed his perspective. It also captured her philosophy.

“I’ve had to fight this really dark demon that says: ‘Why are you fighting this? Just let go, let go,’” Coryell said. “But I’ve never let go because out there there’s some kid in the same situation I was in, or some woman or man who’s been diagnosed with M.S. that feels insignificant or invisible, and I can’t let that happen.

“This is why I’m still here.”

Coryell practices at Sportsman’s Range in Sparta, Wis.Credit…Lauren Justice for The New York Times

What Coryell is most proud of is that on the days she has wanted to die — and there have been many — she willed herself not to. The most recent instance surfaced over the winter, after she beat Covid-19 only to suffer a series of harrowing aftershocks — heart and kidney failure, bacterial pneumonia, shingles on her face — that prodded her to consider giving up, to stop treatment.

She is propelled by a sense of duty, forged in part during a stint in the Army, that overrides everything else. That includes her archery, and it includes her illness, which continues to erode her functions: Swallowing has grown difficult; so has drawing back the string on her bow.

A friend, Cameron Peyton, said he wondered whether spending so much time thinking about others had caused Coryell to neglect her own needs.

“But with Lia,” he said, “it seems like that almost pushes her to be better.”

Coryell knows that there are strangers in this humble Mississippi River town she hasn’t befriended, archers she hasn’t tutored and children with disabilities who have never seen someone shoot a bow in a wheelchair to know they can do it. There are people who need her, and she needs them, too.

Checking in with her people

The Coryell vernacular is studded with self-deprecating one-liners as colorful as her Converse All Stars. As in: Her wavy gray hair, grown out, makes her feel like “a 12-year-old with a mullet,” and with her “post-Covid booty,” she snugs into her wheelchair like “a pickled ham hock stuck in a jar.”

The phrase that cuts to Coryell’s essence, though, contains just three syllables: my people. It’s her term for those who sustain her spirit, who check on her because she darn well checks on them.

Up in Galesville, her niece, Emma Burds, and her husband, Jordan, take her to dinner, to Target, to grocery stores, since she is no longer strong enough to push herself and a cart. Over at Holmen Custom & Collision, Troy modified her new wheelchair, widening it and adding a new foot pad. Mueller, a technician at La Crosse Archery, and his associates there calibrate her bows (named Rowdy and Rebel) and lug them inside and in the winter clear snow from her unofficial parking space, the accessible parking spot out front. The guys at Midwest Off Road, Joe and Greg and Z, customize her vans, including the latest model, a burgundy Dodge Grand Caravan with a “Shut Up Legs!” bumper sticker.

Coryell has called Sportsman’s Range a sanctuary and credits it for helping her get through 2020. Credit…Lauren Justice for The New York Times

In an otherwise uncertain life, they provide Coryell stability. She visits them not just for the services but for the chance to connect. Coryell likes to say that her personality isn’t extroverted — it’s Labrador — and deprived of these interactions, she spirals. At the outset of the pandemic, she developed chest pains — later diagnosed as pericarditis, inflammation of the lining of the heart — that doctors, she said, believed was a response to isolating. (During that time, she shot arrows in the hallway of her apartment, and they thwacked against the wall so hard that a neighbor thought she was having wild sex.)

When seeing her people, she often comes toting gifts, perhaps homemade banana nut muffins or trinkets from her tournaments. Before her finger dexterity diminished, she would make shadow boxes, loaded with photos and competition bibs and American flag pins, as tokens of her gratitude. Now, she brings medals.

Coryell doesn’t need them. What she needs is others to have them, so that next time they see someone in a wheelchair, they will think of all the things that person can accomplish.

“If you want to get motivated, I don’t care whether you’ve got two legs, two arms, whatever,” Joe Dodson, general manager of Midwest Off Road, said one morning in late May when Coryell stopped by with a reporter. One of Coryell’s gold medals is draped over a U.S.A. Archery shooting jersey hanging from the ceiling there. “If you get down, I’ve got the person you should call.”

Coryell thanked Dodson for the compliment, asked about the Irish band he plays in and headed out.

‘You’re mine’

Two years ago, Coryell was wheeling herself through a Walmart parking lot in nearby Onalaska when a young man wearing a backward baseball cap approached. Passing her, he swiveled his head. Was it really her?

A skilled archer himself, Cameron Peyton had just moved to Wisconsin from Kentucky, and before leaving he had researched whether anyone from the U.S. national team lived in the area and then emailed Coryell. Recognizing her from a photo online, he doubled back to introduce himself.

“Ms. Coryell,” he recalled telling her, “I just want to say you’re such an inspiration.”

Her tattoo of three arrows was done in collaboration with her children, who have the same tattoo.Credit…Lauren Justice for The New York Times

“Cameron, oh my gosh,” she said, “we really need to shoot.”

At the end of their first session, he told her he understood if she didn’t have the time to coach him.

“She goes, ‘Oh no, Cameron, you’re mine,’” Peyton said. “She’s a mama bear, and I feel like I’m one of Lia’s cubs. She’s been there for me in times when no one else would.”

Once, Peyton’s truck wouldn’t start during a brutal cold snap. Driving 45 minutes to help, she took Peyton to a hardware store and then drove another 30 to drop him off before heading home.

Coryell relates to those feeling deserted and abandoned, surrounded by people yet entirely on their own. At competitions, she scans the field for unfamiliar faces, and at a meet in Arizona in 2019, she saw Emma Rose Ravish.

It was Ravish’s first national meet, and Coryell spotted her sitting by herself.

What Ravish needed, at a competition in Arizona in 2019, was companionship. Heading over, Coryell started asking questions: Who are you? How are you? What got you interested?

“You know, I never thought obstacles would stand in my way — I was raised to overcome these things,” Ravish said. “But it was just a whole different world. Lia’s like, ‘You’re not the only one and you never have to feel alone.’ She could have said, ‘There are others like you,’ but she didn’t. She said, ‘You’re never alone,’ and that hit me so hard.”

Ravish has since hunted opportunities to reciprocate, and one came in March, at a competition in Mexico. Coryell noticed a girl who, like Ravish, has no legs, tracking Ravish’s every move. Catching her eye during the medal ceremony, Coryell summoned an interpreter and introduced her to Ravish. The girl told Ravish she had never met anyone with the same birth challenges. She said Ravish was her hero.

“That right there — that’s magic,” Coryell said.

Coryell lies in the grass to rest after climbing a hill. Credit…Lauren Justice for The New York Times

A war at home

Coryell loves words — hearing them, posting them around her house, scrawling them in the journal where she gives thanks daily for victories large and small. Every morning, she wakes beneath this adage, imprecisely attributed to Buddha: “Each morning we are born. What we do matters most.”

Then she makes her bed so she’s not tempted to crawl back in.

Because for so long growing up, she wanted to.

In school, classmates’ parents attended teacher conferences, but hers didn’t. She worked hard and sought leadership roles, but her parents forbid her from doing homework because they perceived it as acting out, as trying to be better than them. Her father was an alcoholic, she said, and her mother enabled him.

Even now, hearing her given name — Lisa — conjures memories of her mother growling it, often with an expletive appended. Some years ago, her name was misspelled on a tag as Lia, and she liked it so much that she intends to officially change it after the Paralympics.

“People think you only get PTSD from going to war, but my childhood was a war,” Coryell said, referencing post-traumatic stress disorder. “There were guns. There were shootings. There were knives. There was blood.”

The trauma had a dissociative effect, to the extent that she struggled to recognize herself in school photos. To survive, she honed her senses, learning to decode body language and facial expressions and tones of voice: If country music was playing at her house, it was safe; if not, she dreaded going inside. She trained herself to compartmentalize so well that, now, at the shooting line, she doesn’t hear a thing.

It was archery that rescued her nearly four decades later, after she was medically discharged from the Army, after she was diagnosed with M.S., after she married and divorced and raised two children and taught Advanced Placement courses at a high school in the Milwaukee area, after she relapsed and again thought about killing herself.

“If I stayed home and tried not to get sicker,” Coryell said, “it’s the same thing as trying not to die.”

Coryell’s notes from archery practice.Credit…Lauren Justice for The New York Times

Tagging along to an adaptive sports clinic in California, in 2015, she picked up a bow — and an identity. Her entire worth had revolved around her disease, but archery conferred upon her a sense of self that wasn’t broken: She might have progressive M.S., but she is not progressive M.S.

She was, for the first time in her life, an athlete.

When she started competing six years ago, Coryell, then the only woman in the Western Hemisphere in her para-archery classification, would invariably win, and she’d be teased for it. That bothered her, at first. But what crystallized for her was the power she wielded just by showing up. In being an example. In being seen.

Reframing her circumstances, she felt empowered by her wheelchair, not embarrassed by it. She might have been 18 inches off the ground, but if she extended her arm in greeting, that distance measured 18 inches, too.

When she returned from the Rio Paralympics in 2016, local schools and civic organizations asked her to speak. Social media messages poured in. A former Army lieutenant watched one of her speeches on YouTube and, upon meeting her, thanked Coryell for saving her life. She wasn’t ready to have that kind of profile — “I didn’t think I was worthy” — but she was grateful for the platform.

“Not that I’m the answer to everything, but I do think I’m the beginning to changing some people’s lives,” Coryell said. “Because they’ve already given up, and I’m like, no, no, you can’t do that. Because you never know.”

Advice for a friend with cancer

For a few blissful minutes, it did not matter that Coryell could not walk or stand, because no one else skydiving with her that summer day in 2019 could, either. She glided high above southern Wisconsin, an arresting vista stretched before her: the vastness of Lake Michigan, the sprawling skyline of Chicago, quilts of greens and browns.

Strapped to an instructor’s lap, her body parallel to the ground, Coryell extended her arms as if flying. At precisely that moment, the cloud cover parted and a beam of sunlight surged through. For someone who doesn’t believe in coincidences, this was a profound moment.

A stillness engulfed her. The wind whooshed across her face, but she hardly noticed. For the rest of the descent, Coryell felt like she was far away from herself, like she was watching herself float, and when she landed she realized she wasn’t afraid of dying anymore.

It was like she “found creation or something,” she said, adding: “Maybe your life isn’t about beginning and ending. Maybe it’s about what’s here after you’re gone. What is your legacy?”

Coryell thinks about that question — and the answer — often.

Coryell heads for her car after practice. “This is just a body, just a glob of cells, and right now it’s defective,” she said. “Who I am will always be with all the people that I’ve touched, and a world I’ve made a little bit better. Because that part of me will never die.”Credit…Lauren Justice for The New York Times

Weary of Wisconsin winters, she wants to move after the Paralympics to the San Antonio area, where she intends to work with the Pink Berets, an organization that aids veterans and service members suffering from trauma. She might pursue a Ph.D. in education, at the urging of her son, Joe Multhauf.

“I’m like, I’m never going to use that, Joe,” she said. “But he said, ‘Mom, you’re probably not going to be around when I have kids, and it would be really cool when they ask me about Grandma.’ You can’t tell me he’s not right.”

She also wants to continue formulating plans for her nascent nonprofit, which, she said, will promote literacy and critical thinking among poor children.

She wrote its mission statement last summer, when most weekdays she would retreat to an old pistol range at Fort McCoy, an army base in Sparta, Wis., about 40 miles northeast of La Crosse. Beside the range, a narrow, paved path funnels toward an archery target, and there she would go to shoot, but also to think, to reflect on what is most important to her.

That is what she urged Mueller to consider, too, as they sat on her patio talking about his cancer diagnosis. Coryell knows what it’s like when everyone is upset and has already decided what’s going to happen to her, and nearly every day for the last seven years she has sought to regain a measure of control over her life.

So she asked Mueller how he wanted to spend his time. It was OK to make a bucket list, she told him. Doing so didn’t mean he was giving up, just that he was prioritizing. Mueller understood. He married his fiancée. He went on an elk hunt. He learned that tomorrow could be better than today.

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