Paralympics: Wheelchair fencing

PUBLISHED: 01:30 30 June 2012 | UPDATED: 21:34 20 February 2013

Paralympics: Wheelchair fencing

Paralympics: Wheelchair fencing

Wheelchair fencing was part of the official programme at the first Paralympic Games in Rome and remains so to this day. Lani Chester from Crawley is ranked eighth in the British Women's League. Words: Stephanie Temple

Sword fighting has existed since time began in some form or another; a duel to the death to prove ones honour or just a casual bout in the street for the last loaf of bread. It wasnt until the 19th Century that the use of a sword adopted a new and less violent role. In the higher echelons of society the sport of fencing soared in popularity with princes and kings demonstrating their male prowess with every swipe of the sword.

Nowadays, bouts with a foil, epee and sabre have made their mark on both the Paralympic and Olympic schedule and today, anyone can pick up a sword.

After the Second World War, Sir Ludwig Guttmann, the founder of the Paralympic Games redeveloped the sport at Stoke Mandeville for the modern age.

It became a fierce, fast-moving battle of tactics and technique. At the first Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960, wheelchair fencing was on the official programme and it remains so to this day.

All sports evolve over the years, but in wheelchair fencing one thing remains constant; the competitors enjoy a real sense of freedom in their upper body because the chair is fixed to the floor. In sports like wheelchair tennis and basketball the chair is part of the athlete, the two work as a team just like a tennis player and his racket and if one fails, the other is doomed. Paralympic fencers can forget their chair even for a short time and just focus on making sure they are the first to five points.

Success for able-bodied fencers relies heavily on the speed of their feet. In wheelchair fencing this is replaced by the need for flexibility and arm speed. In sport, the only thing faster than the tip of a fencers sword is a speeding bullet. Arm length also plays a crucial role as the distance between the two athletes is decided by the opponent with the shorter reach, as they have the final say as to whether the chairs are fixed at his arms reach or that of his competitor. This is where tactics take centre stage. In all sports strategy and adopting different styles of play are vital for success and wheelchair fencing is no different. A boxing match cannot be won by just using the techniques of outfighting, sometimes getting closer to your opponent in both mind and body is the only way to walk away victorious.

Three types of weapon are used in paralympic fencing and each has their own set of rules. In bouts using the foil and slightly heavier pe, hits are scored by hitting the opponent with the tip of the weapon.

However, in sabre, hits may also be scored with the edge of the weapon. Any hits below the waist are pointless (excuse the pun) in either of these three disciplines.

For the foil the target area is limited to the torso, while competitors in the sabre or pe events score points by hitting the opponent anywhere above the waist.

Fencers are classified according to their level of impairment and any athlete with spinal cord injuries, lower leg amputations, cerebral palsy and other impairments which require wheelchair use are able to compete. Only one man has excelled in both the able-bodied event and wheelchair classification. Hungarian fencer Pal Szekeres is the only athlete in history who has won medals at both the Olympics and Paralympics. In 1988, he won Bronze in a fencing event and after a near fatal bus accident he defied the odds and went on to win three Golds and a Bronze in wheelchair fencing three years later.

Eighteen-year-old Lani Chester from Crawley, who suffers from Spina Bifida hydrocephalus, recently caught the eye of the GB team and is ranked eighth in the British Womens League. Its an impressive ranking for one so new to the sport, and one who is still battling with college coursework and all the other trials a teenager has to endure. Although Lani is not competing in London, as she hasnt had enough time to train and prepare, she is set for Rio in four years time if her progress and results continue.

Every year I take part in the National Wheelchair Games and last year a member of the GB fencing squad was there. We challenged each other to a bout and the final score was 15-11 to me! I couldnt believe Id won. The coach saw this, took my details and passed them and the rest, as they say, is history, explains Lani.

During our chat in her home in West Sussex, it was obvious that despite the fact Lani is confined to her chair, she does not live a sedentary life. I would like to keep getting better and my goal is to be
at Rio in 2016. I want to travel all over the world and take part in as many competitions as I can so I can climb the rankings. Playing sport, whether its in a chair or not, is great for the social side of life. I have made lots of new friends and I love learning from other people who are in the sporting arena.

The dominance of Asia in the sport in recent years means that our home grown competitors are going to have their work cut out to feature on the medal table this summer.

Four years ago, China and Hong Kong took home 20 of the 30 medals on offer, excelling in Beijing. However, that was then and on home soil in front of the British crowds, our fencers have their best chance of making their mark on the table and taking home their first medal since 1992, before Lani was even born.

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