Terry Hayes served two years as a heavy equipment operator in the U.S. Army. Her father was an Army veteran who served in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. “I was proud of him and proud to be an American. I wanted to do something for my country.”

Terry Hayes ziplining at a wheelchair sports campShe was very active and always on the go, including competitive race walking, marathons, cycling and playing competitive softball. But in 2011 she was diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain disease with no cure and no treatment. At that time, she was walking but needed assistance. “I was very unstable. People would see me and think I was intoxicated. This led me to not want to go out in public.”

For someone always moving, this was a major adjustment. After she became a paraplegic, “I was like now what do I. I thought the door shut on me.” But Hayes realized that she also couldn’t sit inside her house all day. “I can’t live like this… it wasn’t me.”

So, Hayes began to research her options. She learned about a wheelchair sports camp for women out in Colorado and decided to attend. There, she would try all kinds of sports including rock wall climbing, handcycling, yoga, horseback riding, and others. For someone that used to do all kinds of sports before becoming a fulltime wheelchair user, this was a catalytic experience. “When I came home from camp, I realized I had to get back into sports again. I had to get back into sports because it is so good for me physically and mentally.”

Searching wheelchair sports on the internet, she came across a video of Lauryn DeLuca representing the United States in parafencing at the Paralympic Games in Rio. “I watched it and was mesmerized by it. I thought it was so cool and something I wanted to do.” Through additional research and through social media, Hayes would eventually contact Ginny Boydston, the team manager for the USA Parafencing Team, who recommended Hayes find a local fencing club.

headshot of parafencer Terry HayesThe closest one would end up being the Southwest Florida Fencing Academy, which is about 30 minutes away from where she lives. There, Hayes would connect with Charlie Johnson. “He said ‘I’ve never taught anyone in a wheelchair before’ and I said ‘I’ve never fenced before.’” They both agreed it would work out perfectly. It ended up being a great partnership and the two worked on it together. Johnson still coaches Hayes today. When Terry began sabre Dr. Brent Myers came on board as her sabre coach.

Eventually, Hayes would go out to the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for a Parafencing Camp. There she met Mickey Zeljkovic, the fencing coach for the national parafencing team who also has been able to help her with specific training tips. “Off I went and haven’t slowed down since,” Hayes said.

Parafencing is considered a contact sport or combat sport, which is one of the reasons why Hayes enjoys it so much. “You are so close to the other person because your chairs are locked into a frame, so you are facing each other. Your opponent is right up in your face. It is kind of like a chess game as you have to figure out what are they going to do next. It is physical and mental and the combination of the two is very appealing to me.”

It is never too early or too late to start in the sport, according to Hayes, who started when she was 58. “You can start at a real young age and it goes up to 70 plus.” In fact, at age 62, Hayes is now the oldest female category “B” fencer in the world. “If I am lucky enough to get a spot for the Paralympics, and it is looking very good for that right now, I will be 63 when I have the opportunity to represent Team USA in Tokyo.” But in parafencing, there aren’t age categories. “I compete against 18-year-olds. But once we are on the strip, we are all equal.”  Hayes, who fences all three styles (foil, saber, and epee), has been able to compete around the world, including Brazil, South Korea, Canada, Poland, and many other countries. “I love experiencing the food and culture and meeting people.” She and her wife Freda love to travel early to be able to visit some places. “Without para fencing, I wouldn’t have experienced any of that.” Though she does point out that unlike the United States which has the ADA, there are challenges traveling in other countries which may not have those protections for individuals with disabilities.

Terry Hayes competing in a para fencing matchHere in the U.S. though, Hayes still experiences some of the stigma that comes with having a disability. “People think because you are in a wheelchair that you can’t hear so they will talk to me really loud and I have to tell them my hearing is fine. Or they don’t talk to me and instead talk to Freda.”

“I don’t mind people asking me questions at all. I’d rather you ask me questions than stare at me. Treat me like you treat anyone else.”

Her advice to others is, regardless of the type of disability you have, find a sport that you like. Go have fun. It can really change your outlook on life.”

The prognosis is not good for her long-term health, according to Hayes. She is paralyzed from the chest down and “it creeps up your body,” she said. “But I am going to do as much as I can, as long as I can, the best I can and will deal with whatever comes when it comes.”