FORMIDABLE FENCERS ON WHEELS
By Annie Morris
(This article appeared in the June/ July/ August 1999 issue of VETERAN FENCERS QUARTERLY)
What was the scariest moment you ever had on the fencing strip? For everyone, there is probably an incident that instilled a new kind of fear and the need for industrial strength antiperspirant when it occurred. Recently, by way of a second hand telling, I heard that for one fencer whom I know to be very skilled that it was the time he was pitted against a wheelchair fencer for one of his bouts at a tournament. To comply with rules about accessibility, he had to fence this opponent in like manner. This, of course, put him at a great disadvantage as he'd never fenced from a wheelchair in his life.
This situation in which a wheelchair fencer and a non-wheelchair fencer were placed in competition is unusual but wheelchair fencing itself is becoming less unusual. While there is a more extensive network of wheelchair fencing events in Europe and Australia than in the U.S., we are seeing a growth in interest in wheelchair fencing events as part of the "Games" for disabled athletes that are held around the country.
In 1996, the USFA fielded its first wheelchair fencing team at the Paralympic Games in Atlanta. (By the way, "Paralympic" refers to the games being parallel to the Olympic Games rather than being derived from "paraplegic" or "paralyzed," as some have suggested.) The American Championships were held in March 1999 in Montreal, Canada with a team chosen by the USFA participating.
With wheelchair fencing being a fairly new sport in this country, there are not many organized tournaments dedicated solely to it but wheelchair fencers who are interested in qualifying for world competitions have an opportunity to participate at the USFA Summer Nationals, July 3-11 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Wheelchair fencing was developed in 1953 by Sir Ludwig Guttmann and it was first added to the Paralympic Games roster at the 1960 games in Rome. Since then, it has been a part of all summer Paralympic Games. The next summer games will be in Sydney, Australia, October 18-29, 2000. This will be the 40th anniversary for the games.
The rules for play in wheelchair fencing are similar to those for able-bodied fencers, with a few interesting modifications. Fencers compete in foil, epee (men and women) and sabre (men) bouts till one fencer reaches the standard 15 points to win. Rest periods and injury time outs are the same as in other bouts.
The chairs are fixed to the ground at a 110-degree angle to the center bar by fastening them to metal frames. They should be clamped on both sides to keep them from tipping over during action. The inner back wheel is covered by detachable metal shields. The length of the "strip" is determined by the reach of the fencer with the shortest arms. He gets to say if it will be at his distance or that of the other fencer. Rather than being held up and behind the shoulder, the non-weaponed arm is used to hold onto the chair during movement.
The only modification to target area is in epee fencing. The legs are not target area and are covered with an apron to keep accidental touches from being scored. The fencers must keep their feet flat on the rest bar. They must also adhere to the rather amusing rule that no daylight may show between the fencer's buttocks and the seat of the chair.
Fencers who have a loss of control or ability to maintain a stable grip due to their disability may bind the weapon to the hand with a bandage or other type of wrap. A glove may be worn and the wrap should go over the glove. Extra padding or an apron for the protection of the legs is mandatory. The chair may have an extra cushion and, yes, you guessed it, there are rules about the cushion. It may be the same width as the seat of the chair and it may be no less than 5 centimeters thick and no more than 10 centimeters thick.
Though you may not be able to find clubs or coaches in your area who have dealt specifically with wheelchair fencing, you should not let that stop you from getting into the sport if you have an interest. A good fencing coach will be able to accommodate your needs with a bit of experimentation and help on your part to "get the feel of it." Rules for wheelchair fencing are available from the USFA and for those with Internet access, can be downloaded from their website at www.usfa.org
A very good source for information on all wheelchair sports, and wheelchair fencing events in particular is Wheelchair Sports, USA. The USFA cooperates with this organization to promote wheelchair fencing. This is the best place to start if you haven't got a computer and Internet access. You can write to them at: Wheelchair Sports, USA, 3595 Fountain Blvd. Suite L-1, Colorado Springs, CO, 80910. You can reach them by phone at (719) 574-1150. If you do surf the net, their web address is: www.wsusa.org/index.html
Some other sources of information are:
Disabled Sports USA
451 Hungerford Dr., Suite 100
Rockville, MD 20850
PHONE: (301) 217-0960
TDD: (301) 217-0963
Bill Murphy Wheelchair Fencing
306 Candler St. Atlanta, GA 30307
PHONE: (404) 523-7421
Leszek Stawickie (national coach - USFA)
1609 Ellwood Ave., #C4
Louisville, KY 40204
PHONE: (502) 568-6781
Marcella Denton (Chairman, Wheelchair Fencing Committee - USFA)
4009 Woodgate Lane
Louisville, KY 40220
PHONE: (evening) (502) 491-6883
NOTE: The sources of information for this article were numerous sites on the World Wide Web, most notably the International Paralympic Committee site, USFA, Online, Wheelchair Sports, USA, and Disability Fencing. If you wish to check out the sites on the web for yourself, do what I did and go to your favorite search engine (mine is www.altavista.com) and tell it to look for "wheelchair fencing," and you'll be off and rolling--please, take no offense. Temptation overtook me. The pun was irresistible.
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