One-armed archer never turns down a challenge. His latest is competing in the Invictus Games

Navy vet Gabriel George hasn’t let loss of arm slow him down

Jacksonville resident Gabe George, left, takes part in archery practice for the Invictus Games Team U.S. Training Camp at Fort Belvoir, Va. on April 10. The Invictus Games are composed of 15 nations, over 500 military competitors, competing in 10 sporting events April 16-22, 2022. ( Cpl. Mellizza Bonjoc, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The looks usually come. Gabriel George is used to them.

If the questions follow, he answers them with a smile, some background and perhaps a little encouragement of his own. If someone is struggling, George can relate.

The Navy veteran was in a serious motorcycle accident in Jacksonville in 2008 that left his right arm unusable. Two years ago, he had it removed.

In between the accident and now, all George has done is try and master every adaptive sport that he can and serve while serving as an ambassador for the Wounded Warrior Project.

Scuba diving is his favorite. Pickleball is nonstop action. He loves golf and sailing. But George is better known as the one-armed archer, even appearing on a television show, “Go Big Show,” shooting arrows in front of judges like Snoop Dogg and Jennifer Nettles.

If there’s a suggestion that George can’t do something, that’s a challenge, something that the 35-year-old Jacksonville resident never turns down.

His latest is competing in the Invictus Games (Friday through April 22) in the Hague, Netherlands, an event founded by Prince Harry that features more than 500 veteran men and women in a series of adaptive sports.

Whether he’s in the Netherlands or back home with his daughter, George knows that he’s an inspiration to someone out there, a term that still takes some getting used to.

“If I got it [a platform], I’m going to use it to help somebody else,” he said. “And that’s the way I take on everything because I know now that people are watching me and everything that I do.”

‘I can’t do it’

Without a functioning right arm, George was still getting acclimated to his new life when he almost stumbled into adaptive sports during a trip to a VA clinic in San Diego five years ago. There, George said, he saw veterans working on archery for the first time.

His first thought? Doubt.

There was no way he could do something as intricate as shoot an arrow with only one functional arm.

“I’m like, ‘OK, that’s cool, but I can’t do it,’” he said.

“And I guess one of the coaches heard me say that, his name was Joe Bailey, and he reached into his pocket and grabbed this little string right here and tied it to the bow. And he’s like, ‘here, bite down on this and pull.’ When it hit, I was, like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’”

It took 58 pounds of torque to pull back the arrow back with his teeth, but the release did something for him. All of the doubt and sadness and being down on himself due to his circumstances were gone in the time it took the arrow to hit its target.

It showed George that anything was possible.

Accident changes life

George arrived in the area in 2004 from Houston and was stationed in Mayport. On April 1, 2008, George was in a serious motorcycle accident in town. When he regained consciousness and awareness in the hospital, George said his list of injuries was wide-ranging.

He suffered injuries from his C2-C7 vertebrae, broke six ribs, his collarbone and scapula, and had two collapsed lungs and a serious brachial plexus injury. The recovery was grueling. According to the Mayo Clinic, the injury to the brachial plexus, “the network of nerves that sends signals from your spinal cord to your shoulder, arm and hand,” was the most significant.

It left George with a right arm that was still there but paralyzed. Life changed abruptly. George said that he’s been asked multiple times why he isn’t more reclusive or depressed about the loss of his arm. In the months that followed his accident, George struggled profoundly. Slowly, that hopelessness evolved into something positive.

“I’ve done that, and it did nothing for me. It just caused more pain,” he said. “And it puts you in this mindset where you’re this little snowflake, this is a story I tell all the time. I sit at home, be in a lot of pain, you think your like this brittle snowflake that nobody understands you.

“But when you come out to one of these events like Wounded Warrior Project or with other veterans or other people that’s injured or disabled, you find that, ‘Yeah, you’re a snowflake.’ But you’re in a blizzard with a whole bunch of other snowflakes that are still doing the same thing and so we help each other get through stuff. That’s why I love it.”

Another big change

It wasn’t until two years ago that George had to do something about his paralyzed arm. He shattered his humerus — the bone that goes from the elbow to the shoulder — while snowboarding and was left with a decision.

George could have kept his non-functional right arm and made do with the nerve pain or find a surgeon who would remove it.

He chose the latter. George found a surgeon who agreed to amputate — disarticulation is the medical term — from his shoulder down.

By the time George had that procedure, he’d already been involved in adaptive sports. But he’d been competing with the awkward weight and nerve pain of an arm that didn’t move. With it off completely, George had to get acclimated with his new frame. With just one arm now, it was a visual reminder to others that he had a physical challenge to overcome.

And he has.

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.