Sean Callanan has long found solace in archery.
“I just love the flight of the arrow,” said the 46-year-old Middleton resident, an archery pro at Bass Pro Shops in Foxborough.
But what began as a boyhood fascination with accurately shooting suction cup-tipped arrows and developed into a second career as a world-champion traditional archer is now an activity with life-altering ramifications.
On Memorial Day in 2012, on his way home from a world qualifier he had won, Callanan was struck by a car at the eastbound rest area along the Massachusetts Turnpike in Natick.
“I was pumping gas. . . . I don’t remember anything else,” recalled the 5-foot-8, 193-pound Callanan, who also teaches and heads the computer-aided drafting and design department at Northeast Metropolitan Regional Vocational School in Wakefield.
“I’ve been told they found me 38 feet away from where I’d been standing. I was hit by an SUV and woke up in the hospital.”
Callanan, the 2009 International Bowhunters Organization Traditional World Champion, was taken by helicopter to Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
“Initially, the news was very, very bleak,” said Dave DiBarri, the third-year principal at Northeast Regional. “Our staff came together the day after the accident. We were praying that he would survive. We pulled together again a few days later and prayed he would regain consciousness.”
He spent four days in the surgical and neurological intensive care unit. When doctors determined that Callanan’s swollen brain would need time to heal before surgery, he was transferred to the Michael Neely Neuroscience Center.
There, Callanan, unable to remember nearly everyone in his life, including his three sons — Carter and Beckett, his now 4-year-old twins, and 10-year-old Griffin — began his recovery
A former Globe All-Scholastic hockey goalie at Northeast Regional, he could not walk. His cognitive skills were severely limited. He suffered from tinnitus. He could not see colors or the edges of objects. He could not taste or smell. His left hand was numb and he could not raise the arm above his shoulder.
“They brought in front of him what looked like a very large, old-fashioned, push-button key pad,” recalled Callanan’s wife, Audra. “And they would say, ‘Can you tell me where number 1 is?’ And he would describe it, and they’d say, ‘Push number 1.’ And he would push number 7.”
During his bedridden state and countless neurological tests, Callanan would replay a familiar sequence.
“I found great joy in just closing my eyes and working through what it would be like to shoot archery,” he said.
“I spent so much time in MRI tubes. . . . I would shoot even more when I was in there. I wasn’t trying to get better at archery. It was respite for me.”
When Callanan was released four weeks later, he was walking with a cane, reading, and writing.
Following months of abdominal injections to thin his blood so brain clots would dissipate, Callanan underwent successful surgery last December. The procedure returned sensation to his left hand and increased the range of motion in his left arm.
By then, however, he had already returned to competitive archery; motivated to show family and friends he was all right.
In late spring 2013, Callanan, without practicing and admittedly struggling to pull his bow string back, won a World Cup qualifier by 50 points.
The performance reflected his skill as much as his mental fortitude. “Sean’s got to be the best, well, at least among the best, traditional archers I know,” said Eric Price, whose company, Lumenok, sponsors Callanan. “He’s an incredible archer. He’s got insane skills.”
Added Bob Donohoe, a friend and a sponsor from Full Flight Technology in Cambridge: “Sean’s positive mental approach and him not beating up on himself, I think, is a big part of his success. He doesn’t focus on what he can’t do.He can look at a rabbit and not know what it’s called anymore or eat pizza and not taste anything, but he makes light of some of it. And that’s, I think, his strength.”
Callanan is grateful to be alive, appreciative for the perspective he now has. “I look back and I didn’t like the guy I was at times,” he admitted.
“I’d worry about a scratch on the vehicle or [other] simple things. It’s kind of sad it took [the accident] to wake me up. I used to leave family cookouts to go to a big shoot. Now, I park myself at that family cookout. I love my family and my friends and now I take the time to show them.”
Audra Callanan remains thankful for the ultracompetitive man she married: The man with the gritty commitment and endless drive to become a world champion archer.
“Had he not lived the way he did before the accident he would not be alive,” she said. “Every doctor, every neurosurgeon said he should not be alive. But he was alive because archery helped him develop an inner strength strength and a physical strength that helped him endure.”
She said that “before the accident, he was logging 1,000 shots a week. He pulls his bow back at about 67 pounds. So pulling 67 pounds back 1,000 times every seven days develops great strength in your neck and in your shoulders. The way the doctors surmised it, Sean’s neck and his upper back absorbed much of the impact.”
Ever the competitor, Callanan, who has returned to teaching, admits the desire to win is slowly returning, though not at the expense of his new view on life.
“I’m getting the itch to compete,” he said, but not as much as he once did.
“I just need to feel like I’ve given back as much as I’ve been given. . . . So many people helped me and my family. When you see how much people did, I feel guilty not spending everything I have giving back.”
“I want to compete. . . . I’ll be in Nashville in 2015 for the World Championships, hopefully winning on Day 2 . . . but my priority is others first.”
Paul Lazdowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.