By Sam Cortes, Communications Coordinator
Fencing is the number one sport in many countries around the world. Even though it is not as well known in Canada, Provincial Coach Ayach Bounachada said it really is a sport for everyone.
“Fencing is a pretty complex sport, but it helps kids develop many skills, like endurance, agility, reaction, coordination, and more.”
Executive Director of the Manitoba Fencing Association, Sean Rathwell, describes fencing as a chess match that’s going 1,000 miles a minute.
“There are so many benefits of the sport related to developing mental acuity, dexterity, discipline, strength, and speed.”
Fencing is an adaptive sport for people with disabilities that can be practiced both competitively or recreationally, and can help maintain your physical, mental, emotional, and social health.
From ‘en garde’ to scoring points
In wheelchair fencing, the competitors’ wheelchairs are firmly fixed to a metal frame in the competition area, which is known as the piste.
The fencers start with blades raised in the en garde position. This position is held until the referee calls play and the bout begins. Competitors are connected electronically to a scoring box that records hits on their opponent, and the objective is to score 15 points.
Similar to able-bodied fencing, three types of weapons are used: foil, epee, and sabre.
- The epee is the heaviest weapon and is more rigid than the other swords. Points are scored by touching the tip of the blade on any part of the opponent’s body above the waist.
- The foil is lighter and highly flexible. In the foil event, points are awarded for landing the tip of the blade on the opponent’s torso, but not the limbs or head.
- The sabre has a short, flexible blade and differs from the other events in that points are scored by hitting the opponent with the cutting edge, flat, or back of the blade.
“It’s a very mental game,” said Ayach. “You have to stay calm and focused while at the same time analyze what your opponent is doing. You’re constantly finding the problem, deciding on the solution, and then putting the solution into practice. And that’s happening almost every second of the match.”
Athletes who use wheelchairs are eligible to compete in wheelchair fencing. This generally includes athletes who have had a spinal cord injury (quadriplegic and paraplegic), lower leg amputation, or who have cerebral palsy or other physical disabilities that require the use of a wheelchair.
There are three divisions of competition based on disability classification. Each athlete is examined by the classification team to determine their ability to perform the skills needed to fence.
Athletes are required to perform various lunges to determine their ability to return to an upright position following a lunge forward or to the side. They are also tested for arm extension, speed of movement, chest extension, and balance.
Athletes are assigned point scores based on their ability to perform the required skills. The higher the final point score, the greater the ability of the athlete to perform the required skills. Athletes classified as an “A” have more ability to perform the skills than athletes classified as either “B” or “C”.
Developing both mental and physical strength
Regardless of classification, and like many other sports, athletes require aspects of both physical and mental training to compete in wheelchair fencing.
The mental training involves watching videos of past matches and training the brain to remain calm and focused only on your opponent.
“The physical training involves a lot of upper body strength and mobility training,” said Sean. “It’s also important to refine athletes’ hand movements, for example, really tightening up the openings you give your opponent so you make fewer mistakes, hand-wise.”
Ayach said while the athletes have to keep up their physical training throughout the season, they also spend a lot of time focusing on technique.
“I joke with the athletes that they should spend less time on video games and more on watching fencing matches so they can learn new tricks and skills to develop.”
Fencing at a community level
Sean said you don’t necessarily need fencing gear to get into the sport.
“A general knowledge of the sport, a willingness to make things fun, and a space to practice in are good places to start. Coaches tend to keep things as fun as possible, especially at the younger level, and introduce elements of fencing as they go along.”
Kids wanting to pursue fencing of any kind need to start with the basics of physical literacy and building musculature, so Sean also recommends trying other sports at the same time as trying fencing.
All exercise from a young age will go a long way to helping develop the more technical and physical aspects of the sport.
To learn more about wheelchair fencing, visit the Manitoba Fencing Association website.