Janice Walth, blind archer

Janice Walth uses special techniques to excel in archery without using her eyes

PHOTO by luke fitz

For more information, visit http://seenolimits.org and http://societyfortheblind.org.

Janice Walth's skill in archery sets her apart. She constantly works to improve her excellent form, and the records she hits prove it. Even more impressive? Walth is legally blind. A medical records transcription supervisor, she also serves on the board of directors of Sacramento's Society for the Blind and coaches junior blind archers, as well as blinded veterans in the Wounded Warrior program. Walth took some time to discuss competitive archery, the limitations of technology and her special technique.

How do you hit the target?

Instead of looking through a regular sight, I orient myself with a tripod. I touch the back of my extended hand to an adjustable bar and position my feet at special markers. Once I have my body lined up and start shooting, it's a matter of making small adjustments until I get the results I want.

But you can’t see the results.

A sighted assistant, or spotter, always helps a blind archer set up, score and stay on top of safety issues. For instant gratification I can always have a milk carton at the bull's eye and listen for the sound of the arrow hitting it.

Does the spotter help you take your shot?

No. A shot depends on how the arrow leaves the bow and I have complete control over that. … If I am getting a vertical or horizontal line up, I adjust my tactile sight accordingly.

How did you get into archery?

My husband Courtney was an archer. After work I often crocheted, but about 10 years ago I got curious about how I could practice archery myself. I contacted British Blind Sports in the U.K. and they explained how tactile sighting worked. They sent me the specs for making a tripod and now Courtney and I shoot together. He does his rounds and also acts as my spotter.

Couldn’t technology be of more use?

Technology tends to fail you when you need it the most. Imagine getting your gear to a competition and then having a dead battery or some problem like that. How frustrating.

So you compete to win.

Of course. People often think the disabled are just happy to participate, but we are as competitive as anyone else. Besides, I want to gauge my progress. It's not fun if I'm not improving.

How do blind archers compete with so many degrees of visual impairment?

We used to be grouped together and had to wear ‘blackouts,' blindfolds or glasses with blacked-out lenses, but recently the regulations changed and now archers are divided between B1, B2 and B3 categories. I only see a little peripheral light so I'm a B1 and in the only group that still wears blackouts. B2s and B3s are legally blind but can take advantage of what partial light and color they see.

What if sighted people volunteered to wear blackouts in order to compete along with the visually impaired?

I don't know if I would want that. Archery is not about how well you see, but how well you execute your shot. Form is what brings legitimacy to the sport and that legitimacy is important to me.

Do you only compete when there’s a category for blind contestants?

No. With the help of an assistant, blind archers can always attend regular competitions. I was just at the 2015 Vegas Shoot where there were about 2,500 archers. I shot Freestyle Unlimited and got 404 points out of a possible 900. Jeff Fabry is not blind but can't use his right arm and yet he won his category shooting with a mouth tab release. Everyone can shoot together.

How long have you been blind?

Since childhood. I have a genetic condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. My older brother inherited it too, but my younger brother and sister did not. No one else in my family has it.

How did it affect your family activities?

It didn't. We hiked, swam and water-skied all together. You will always have to work through some kind of limitation in life no matter who you are. Archery can help with that. The feeling you get when you hit your target translates into possibilities in all parts of your life. Blinded veterans have told me that with archery they feel their stress leaving them. Courtney and I are coaching some very special people.

Does archery lower your stress levels?

(Laughs.) I have a great life and a great husband and I don't feel like I have any stress at all, but who knows, maybe I owe that to archery.