By Sam Cortes, Communications Coordinator

When it comes to adjusting to impacts of COVID-19, Manitoba’s fencing community embodies dedication and what it means to work with what you’re given.

From virtual bout analysis to training in their homes, fencing athletes, including Olympic hopeful Misha Sweet, have been concentrating on how they can hone their skills in a changing environment.

And as a result, the mental growth and resilience may be one of the positives that come out of a challenging year.


Reacting Fast

Fencing athletes and coaches quickly moved to online training in March.

“Like everybody, we were blindsided, and we had no real infrastructure set up to do this kind of thing,” said Sean Rathwell, Executive Director of the Manitoba Fencing Association.

But Provincial Coach, Ayach Bounachada, acted quickly to create programs tailored to athletes and the current restrictions.

“Our provincial coach was absolutely tireless in setting everything up,” said Sean.

Working in collaboration with the Sport Manitoba Performance Centre, Sean said Ayach developed not only fencing-specific programming, but also strength and conditioning and injury prevention, too.


Remote Training

Ayach currently works with about 30-40 fencers on the provincial team.

“It’s one of our strengths in Manitoba – we have strong competitive programs,” said Ayach.

Each week, he sends virtual training programs to his athletes. Plus, each plan includes video demonstrations that Ayach creates with his son to give the athletes a better understanding of the training.

He has also implemented an engaging way for athletes to study technique online by analyzing bouts.

“You take video of competitions and you review them and analyze what’s happening in the bout with each group,” said Ayach. “From these videos, we try to develop an understanding about what happens in the bout — the strength and the weakness of the opponents, and I push them by asking them questions to try to give solutions. And then we discuss as a group. This is one of the most interesting sessions we do online.”


Tools That Will Last Beyond the Pandemic

And training isn’t just about the physical or technical side of things. It’s also about the mental side, including how to deal with the experiences of 2020.

That’s why Ayach organizes online workshops for athletes on topics such as coping with stress, depression and sport injuries.

“The mental side is extremely important. If you’re not there, you cannot win a competition. You cannot win a bout. You have to be strong mentally to succeed in competitions,” said Ayach.

Team Canada’s Misha Sweet, who works both with his national coach and Ayach and melds the two training programs together, believes that these tools that have been developed from the pandemic can act as a complement to gym training.

“Certain things can transfer over as well that can stay permanent. Maybe people before didn’t have the capacity for home training, so they were just training at the gym, and they did nothing else outside of that. Maybe now they’re like ‘Oh I have this equipment at home now’ and their progress and performance can sky rocket,” said Misha.


Working Within the Restrictions

For Misha, there’s been a valuable lesson learned while Manitoba’s restrictions remain different from other Canadian provinces where his opponents are training.

Since the Olympic qualifier was suspended due to COVID-19 earlier this year, Misha has had to adjust to the unknown along with a different routine, including training and working out remotely.

For example, Misha, who is a foil fencer, can work from home on his footwork, target training to maintain tip accuracy, and strength and conditioning.

But it hasn’t been without challenges: working with less space and lack of in-person team atmosphere to feed off of.


An Important Realization

But the key to pushing forward for Misha is to stop thinking about what everyone else is doing and focus on his own journey.

Earlier in 2020, Misha verbalized something during a weekly call with the Canadian Sport Centre Manitoba that stuck with him: what is good for champions, might not be good for you.

Essentially, Misha explained if one champion trains a certain way, but if that doesn’t really jive with you, and you have your own way of training that works for you, you’ll become a champion in your own way.

“That gives you a bit more of a calm feeling, [not] stressing out thinking ‘Oh they’re doing this, they’re doing that, they’re training in Montreal and we can’t train here’, but that’s right for them at that moment,” he said. “That mentality of putting yourself first rather than trying to model yourself off of other people was something that I hadn’t actually really thought about before I just said it in the meeting and I could see it clicking with other people.”


Hope For the Future 

Sean believes what everyone has gone through so far is character-building, but the most important thing is hope.

“Stay strong, stay active and stay happy. It’s the whole health-wellness aspect of it. You can’t train if you’re not healthy — mentally or physically,” he said. “The light is at the end of the tunnel.”

Ayach knows the hard work and positivity will pay off down the road.

“If you are not positive, it’s going to be tough for people. Right now, the biggest challenge for everyone in the sport is the mental side. If you stay strong, [and] you pass this period of time, I’m sure you’re going to succeed in the future.”

Misha hopes everyone can get out of this and get back to training quickly and safely. He also wishes to get answers soon as to what the end of the Olympic qualifying season is going to look like.

“My biggest goal right now is to finish the qualifying season,” he said.

After that, Misha said he’ll focus on his performance at the tournament, wherever it might be. Lastly, his ultimate goal is to qualify and perform at the Olympics.

“But we have to get there first. Once we’re there, nothing is going to be left behind, it’s all going to be left out there on the strip and we’re going to do our best,” said Misha.


To learn more about the Manitoba Fencing Association, visit their website.