Athletes in wheelchairs parry and lunge in fencing competition

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Seated in his specialized wheelchair and armed with a three-foot-long fence, Noah Hansen, 22, of Ellicott City, Md., lunged at his opponent. With a few quick strokes, the two athletes expertly swung their swords back and forth, carefully twisting and stretching. Dodging attacks from others.

In less than five minutes, the round was over – and after several similar bouts, Hansen ended the day of intense fencing competition in 16th place. In the saber category, named for a type of sword once used by cavalry.

“I’m not where I want to be, but I feel like I’m making progress,” he said.

Hansen was among 130 athletes — and more than 200 spectators — at a convention center in Leesburg this weekend. The United States and 25 other countries, including France, Canada, Italy and Argentina, will compete for the International Wheelchair Fencing World Cup.

The four-day wheelchair fencing competition attracted the most skilled athletes, who competed for points to qualify for the 2024 Summer Paralympics in Paris.

The event in Leesburg marks the first time in two decades that the competition has been held in the United States, adding to the surge Exclusive to Americans Athletes, their family, coaches and supporters. Organizers with USA Fencing, which put on the Leesburg event, hope that having the event here — and participating in it — will raise awareness of wheelchair fencing, known as parafencing in the United States. Atlanta hosted the last World Cup parafencing event in the United States in 2003.

“For the past 20 years, athletes have had to fly to compete in Brazil or Hungary, and now we have a home-field advantage,” said USA Fencing spokesman Bryan Wendell. “We want local fans to have the ability to come and cheer them on, and we want to grow the sport of parafencing.”

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Fencing has a long history, mainly in Europe, and many athletes call it the sport of royalty, originating from medieval warfare. Wheelchair fencing began in the 1950s and was seen as a way to encourage veterans returning from war who had lost arms or had other mobility issues to play the sport. It was played first The Paralympics in Rome in 1960 gradually became more popular.

Originally, parafencing athletes used heavy wheelchairs and could not move much. Someone had to lean behind the fencer’s wheelchair and hang onto the wheels so it wouldn’t tip over. Over the years, players’ wheelchairs have become lighter and more specialized, so they are easier to travel and maneuver.

In parafencing, athletes are divided into different categories based on their mobility. Some have cerebral palsy or strokes. Others have partial paralysis from severe spinal injuries or accidents. Many had their limbs amputated, including some war veterans.

To compete, each athlete is wheelchair fixed A metal plate on the floor and a knife-length apart. Sportsmen, Strapped into their chairs, they wear layers of protective gear. They fight with their strong arm as they jump, bend and duck their opponent’s sword and hold their chair with the other.

As in other types Fencing and parafencing athletes compete in three styles and must touch their opponent in the torso, upper body or limbs – depending on the type of sword they use. A foil is a light weapon named from a court or ceremonial sword. Saber refers to the type used by cavalry, and epee is a nod to weapons once used in duels. Points are awarded when the electronically wired tip of the knife makes contact With a special metallic jacket worn by each player.

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Known in the parafencing community as “Mama T,” retired US Army 1st Class Sgt. Patricia A. Dykes, 59, of Fort Collins, Colo., suffered a traumatic brain injury, 24 concussions and two strokes. On her right, the knife she used to hold her fencing knife, she underwent several surgeries to repair the injuries Some from her military service and others from wheelchair fencing or other accidentsHer wrist, hand, elbow and shoulder.

“It’s a martial art that requires body, mind and spirit,” she said. “We’re just locked in with the wheels.”

Athletes, coaches and trainers say wheelchair fencing requires critical thinking in making split-second decisions, strategy to outmaneuver an opponent, physical strength and agility – especially in the upper body – and hand-eye coordination. Many wheelchair fencing athletes compare it to playing a physical game of chess.

“Fencing is like a puzzle with many pieces,” says Ellen Geddes, a 34-year-old parafencer from Aiken, SC, where she runs a boarding facility for horses. Geddes got into parafencing in 2012 after suffering a spinal cord injury in a car accident a year earlier.

“Fencing is easy for anyone to start, but like any sport it is very difficult to do it at a high level,” she said.

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Athletes who make it to the World Cup level in wheelchair fencing spend tens of thousands of dollars on equipment, travel, accommodation and registration fees. They are gone too Months of intense workouts and practicing for competitions. Many parafunders also try to get sponsors to defer expenses.

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For many parafencing athletes, they started the sport after seeing someone else get involved. – Often when they are in rehabilitation centers or in physical therapy.

Elke Lale Van Achterberg, a wheelchair fencer representing Turkey, competes in the International Wheelchair Fencing World Cup on Jan. 14 in Leesburg, Va. (Video: Dana Headpeth)

“It requires you to be mentally focused, strong and flexible,” said Elke Lael van Achterberg, 22, who competed for Turkey in the Leesburg event and has been a parafencer for about a decade. “We’re pro athletes, not disabled people doing sports.”

Van Achterberg, who runs a modeling agency, severely damaged her nervous system after an injury caused her left leg to be amputated when she was 11 years old. She later suffered a herniated disc surgery in her back, causing it to dislocate. Before her injuries, she said she enjoyed gymnastics and wanted to find a sport she enjoyed.

“Parafencing is for me,” she says with a laugh: “Who doesn’t love sword fighting?”

Hansen, a full-time student at the University of Maryland in College Park, first saw parafencing at a medical clinic. He has been paralyzed from the waist down since a car accident at age 7, and says he was drawn to the sport as a child playing with toy knives with his siblings and relatives.

Eventually, he joined a fencing club near his home and joined another team in college, He is the only parafencing athlete in this. He has been working with the coach for six years and has won two high-level medals in international team competitions.

“Parafencing is a niche sport and community,” Hansen said, “but it seems like people are starting to pay attention to it, and that’s good.”

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