Header image courtesy Oklahoman Archive.
Joe Thornton was World Archery Champion in 1961 in Oslo, Norway. He died at the age of 102 on 4 February 2019 in Tahlequah, USA.
At high school in Ponca City, Joe was a boxer and he made bows and arrows with his friends in his free time. Years later, in the 1950s, he learned archery was an organised sport and bought modern equipment.
By 1960, Joe was Oklahoma state archery champion.
He entered the trials for the USA team in 1961, finishing fourth at the event in which the top three would be the team to travel to the World Archery Championships.
The club where Joe was living in Tulsa and his fellow archers collected the thousand dollars needed to send him to Oslo anyway.
“I started out kinda slow but before long I was in front,” said Joe.
“When the tournament was over I had won by 100 points. I could have discarded my last dozen arrows and still been the world champion.”
He set three world records during the event.
Thornton made six trips to Europe to compete internationally. He won his second and third world titles with the USA team in 1963 in Helsinki, Finland and in 1965 in Vasteras, Sweden. He also had individual silver medals at both of those events.
In 1972, Joe qualified for the first trials to send an archery team to the Olympic Games in over 50 years but narrowly missed out.
He continued to compete in masters events until he could no longer pull back his bow.
Joe’s parents were both Cherokee. In December 1978, Joe was inducted into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame.
“I have been asked many times if being an Indian made me a better archer,” he said. “That I do not know, but I am sure it gave me a greater desire to excel with the bow and arrow.”
The Cherokee Nation inaugurated the Joe Thornton Archery Range in Park Hill, Oklahoma in 2016. He gave the command to shoot the first arrows during its opening ceremony.
The then 100-year-old said: “This archery range is a great thing. It’s a great thing for the Cherokee people and I hope to see some of the students who will shoot here become world champions.”
Joe is survived by his wife Helen, also a world champion archer, four children, seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.