Paralympic shooter is aiming for Tokyo using a meditative mindset and a furious focus
When 20-year-old adaptive air rifle shooter Stetson Bardfield sets up in his track chair-mounted swivel tree stand to hunt for deer or antelope, the result is a big dinner for his whole family.
“I don’t miss, or I don’t take the shot,” the Colorado Springs, Colo., resident said.
This summer, Bardfield’s hunt is not for meat, but rather for a medal at the Para Shooting World Cup June 10-19 in Lima, Peru, which would earn him the qualifying spot he needs to represent Team USA at the Tokyo Paralympic Games, set for Aug. 24-Sept. 5.
Lima is where he topped the podium at the 2019 Parapan America Games in his SH2 classification, in the mixed 10-meter air rifle prone event.
Bardfield also shoots 50-meter smallbore rifle prone and added meditation and deadlift weight training to his rifle regimen.
“Winning gold was an incredible experience,” he said. “Going back, I think I can shoot even better.”
According to USA Shooting CEO Matt Suggs, Bardfield’s practice scores are focused on hitting world record marks averaging 632.0. His competition best is a 634.2, which he shot last December at the Winter Airgun Championships in Anniston, Ala.
Bardfield is the team’s youngest competitor and uses only his left hand, which has to be placed onto the pistol grip by a loader. This is because his physical condition, called arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (AMC), causes curvature of and stiffness in his joints.
Suggs also shot rifle for the national team (1985-1996) and met Bardfield when the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center closed due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and he stepped in to replace Bardfield’s regular loader, Tony Silengo.
“It takes a lot of skill to shoot this way,” Suggs said. “What amazes me about Stetson is his positive attitude.”
Straight from the Start
At age 4, Bardfield was already on his way to living a different life. His legs were fused at over a 90-degree angle, and his parents let him decide to have them amputated. Doctors said he would never walk or grasp anything on his own. Today, Bardfield uses prosthetics but can also walk on his residual limbs.
“I can throw a ball, too,” he said.
When his family moved to Fort Carson, Colo., in 2014, where his dad is an Army helicopter pilot, Bardfield volunteered for the Warrior Games and met Marine E-7 Gunnery Sgt. Pedro Aquino (Dallas, Texas), who competes in shooting and swimming.
“I loved watching him shoot,” said Bardfield. “At the end of the event, we went to the range, and he gave me his gold medal. I was flabbergasted that shooting was an option for me, but seeing all the Paralympic positions and shooting types, then it was not as daunting.”
On that first day shooting rifle, Barfield shot a 10.9, which is the center of the target and the equivalent of hitting a period on a newspaper in 12-point font at 33 feet (10 meters).
“That was the moment I knew shooting is what I was meant to do,” he said.
Bardfield began his competitive career as one of two athletes in the first Junior Paralympics in 2018. His first international competition was at age 16 in Thailand, and he said the support he experienced at that event helped him excel quickly.
He has also tried a variety of setups, starting with a simple piece of plywood bolted to a walker and beanbags to hold his arms up into position. After going through four different tables, he now shoots an Anschutz 9015 ONE rifle using a spring stand, and his seat and tabletop are connected so he can fully rotate his body to keep his sights steadier.
Delaying the Games because of the pandemic allowed him to address other issues as well, since Bardfield has to move the rifle on his shoulder using his chin, which affects his aim.
“He’s stepped up to each challenge and now out-shoots his teammates that easily beat him before COVID,” said Suggs.
Life Out of Range
Bardfield has also learned to adapt his skills so he can experience a different feeling from that of just shooting indoors.
Since he was 14 years old, he has participated on big game hunts with the Outdoor Buddies program for mobility-impaired hunters in Westcliffe, Colo. In October 2018, Bardfield downed his first pronghorn using a swimming pool noodle as a gun rest to hit the 345-yard shot.
“It’s better than playing video games,” he said.
However, in his work as an AMC advocate, Bardfield does host a gamer night to talk to teens with his condition about their goals for independence.
Part of that process for him was moving on to the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center and working as a tour guide. In March 2020, he got married to fellow shooter Kellie (Foster), and he continues to host a podcast using his nickname, “The Footless Fury,” for which he interviews his fellow para athletes.
He said the name fits.
“I am missing both legs, and my urge to prove people wrong is how I got my fury,” he said.
If he does head to Tokyo, Team USA isn’t the only one that Bardfield will be proud to represent. He is a member of The Beard Struggle Brand Viking team, and he hopes that by August he can visit a barbershop.
“I’m on the cusp of shooting my absolute best,” he said. “I’ve just got to get this beard trimmed a little bit.”
To learn about Paralympic shooting, visit https://www.usashooting.org. The “Footless Fury“ podcast can be found on Facebook.