Sophia Bultema puts two shells into the shotgun, then takes her stance, holding the gun with her right hand while resting the barrel on the stump where her left arm should be.
Leaning forward, she tips the gun up, then down. “Pull,” she commands. An orange clay pigeon flies into the sky. She fires, and the pigeon shatters, countless pieces falling to the ground.
It’s on to the next station for 15-year-old Sophia as her trap-shooting practice continues at the USA Shooting range at Fort Carson. She’s only been shooting for a year or so as part of the St. Mary’s High School shooting team, but her coach calls her progress “totally incredible.” And now a couple of Olympic shooters have taken her under their wings.
It’s just the latest chapter in a story that has taken her from an orphanage in China to a loving family in Colorado Springs and now, potentially, to the Paralympics in Tokyo in 2020. And this chapter, she and father Patrick stress, was only made possible by the generosity of those supporting her, from her coaches to a company that donated a gun to the prosthetist helping her adjust to her high-tech, $140,000 prosthetic arm — what Patrick calls her Luke Skywalker arm.
There’s also Sophia’s good luck charm: Ollie, the Bultemas’ English cocker spaniel. Ollie goes to competitions with Sophia, and she rubs his belly before each event. “He’s got a nice little belly,” she says.
A mental sport
Sophia is one of three girls whom Patrick and Lily Bultema have adopted from China. The first two, Annika, now 22, and Ellora, 20, were adopted as babies. But Sophia, whose largely missing left arm is the result of a fairly common birth defect, was 6 when she was adopted; she had lived most of her life in the orphanage and spoke no English, had never met a foreigner.
“You had white hair,” she says to her dad. “I had never seen white hair.”
Though they were taking Sophia from the only home she had known, the Bultemas believed they could offer her a better future — and a loving household that included two sisters from her homeland. (The Bultemas also have another daughter and three sons.)
Today, Sophia is the only kid still at home. “I’m definitely spoiled,” she says. She’s a typical teen, walking away embarrassed when Patrick tears up at a certain memory. She likes Korean pop, reading, watching TV. Her least favorite subjects in school are science and math — “surprisingly,” she says, because “most Asians are supposed to be, like, good at math.”
Some of her friends were a little dubious, she says, when she took up shooting, “but I think overall they think it’s pretty cool.” St. Mary’s became the first high school in the state to have a sanctioned clay shooting team when it added the program a couple of years ago.
Sophia’s dad does trap shooting, so taking up the sport gave them a common pursuit. “I really like breaking the clays,” she says. “And I like how everyone’s really nice and supportive of what I do and what the team does.”
When she first picked up a gun, though, she was skeptical. “I didn’t really like loud noises,” she says. “And I thought the clays were like super fast, so it seemed impractical.”
John Westfall, the St. Mary’s shooting team coach, says he had no qualms about taking on a one-armed shooter.
“When she first started, she couldn’t get a target,” he recalls. “God bless her, she stuck with it and went to several practices without hitting the target. I can remember the first time she hit one; she was so excited.”
She was not used to using her left arm, which ends just below the elbow, so shooting put a strain on it and her back. “My arm was way smaller, because I never used it,” she says. Now, she adds proudly, that left arm has been built up.
Shooting, though, is more a mental sport than a physical one. You have to remain calm but “hyper aware” at the same time — a state of “mindfullness,” says Dale Royer, one of her USA Shooting coaches.
“You clear your mind so your eyes grab onto the clay as soon as it becomes visible,” Patrick says. “You don’t really aim the shotgun. You have the shotgun perfectly placed and you just look for the clay and your eyes grab it.”
For her first gun, Patrick bought one and adapted it for Sophia. Then Kodiak Firearms in the Springs donated a gun; now she has a third gun, a Krieghoff, provided and customized by Royer and Caitlin Connor, Royer’s fiancee and the reigning women’s world champion in skeet shooting. Sophia uses the gun from Kodiak to shoot skeet with the St. Mary’s team; for trap, she uses the Krieghoff.
She shoots American trap with the St. Mary’s team; with USA Shooting, Sophia shoots international trap, which, among other things, involves a faster-moving target.
“The international is considered the most challenging shotgun game in the world,” says Sharee Waldron, shotgun team manager with USA Shooting. And it’s the basis of Para Trap, which is expected to make its debut at the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
While the Paralympics have other shooting sports, Para Trap “is definitely just emerging,” Waldron says. Since the USOC won’t fund it until it becomes a recognized sport, USA Shooting is trying to get the word out.
“Until it gets established,” she says, “we have to figure out private funding.”
Looking to Tokyo
Sophia is doing well, Royer says, but she will have to shoot “a bit higher” to compete at the World Championships this fall in Sydney, Australia. That, in turn, would be her path to Tokyo.
If she goes to Tokyo, her new arm will go with her — but she can’t use it in competition. The rules for shooters with upper limb issues don’t allow any assistive device that is not generally available to all, Patrick says. (It was a lengthy process to get the arm approved for insurance, he says, and still required “a significant co-pay.”) Even if the prosthetic were allowed, there is concern that the shock of shooting could damage the sophisticated arm. And Sophia would lose the direct sensation and touch that she has with her residual limb.
Away from the shooting range, though, the new arm gets plenty of use — so much that the i-limb ultra hand from Touch Bionics has broken several times.
Touch Bionics engineers have redesigned the hand in light of the problems Sophia has had, said Dave Nalder with Horizon Prosthetics in Colorado Springs.
“I don’t think they were used to a little person like her being so hard on the device. She really put it to the test.”
To get the arm, Sophia, Patrick and Nalder traveled to a Touch Bionics facility in Ohio for a training and prototyping process.
The i-limb ultra is designed to look and move like a natural hand. “Even though her hand may be gone, the nerves that feed to the hand are still in existence,” Nalder says. “So we’re just tapping into the functionality of the nerves that originally would have gone down to the hand.”
There were concerns, though. “She never had a need to wiggle those muscles,” Nalder says, “so we were worried she wouldn’t have the pattern recognition. But she surprised us.”
Sophia says she is grateful that Nalder and others have “put up” with her. “I’m 15. I’m a teenager. I can’t be at the top of their list to hang out with.”
But Nalder laughs at the idea that he’s had to “put up” with her.
“She’s fantastic,” he says. “She’s just so much fun to work with.”
Says Waldron: “She’s a pretty phenomenal young woman.”