When Byron Branch was younger, he was involved in a chess club and played a lot of chess. “I’ve always been intrigued by anything that is intellectually heavy,” he said. When he was 16, he decided to give fencing a try. He did pretty well. One year later, he would take third place in Ohio’s high school state championships. “I needed a sport that I could compete in year-round. Branch would compete as an able-bodied fencer from 2007-2016. After college, Branch would become a police officer and would be involved in a highway accident that resulted in the amputation of his right leg in September 2016. A friend of his recommended he get into parafencing and he is now part of the USA Parafencing Team.
Mickey Zeljkovic, the coach for the USA Parafencing Team, also fell in love with the sport at first sight. “You work your mind and your body at the same time. It is about making really good decisions in a short period and working precisely.”Parafencing is an individualized sport, but it can also be a lifetime sport. “We have athletes starting out at 6 years old and going up to 80 years old,” Zeljkovic said. “We don’t have the age limits that some other sports may have.”
There are three styles of parafencing, all based from a chair: foil, epee, and saber. Each discipline utilizes a different type of weapon and the rules and approach vary as well, which we will address a little later.
The saber is the lightest weapon and has a classic saber look with half-moon guard. The foil blade is light and has a small guard. The epee is the heaviest weapon of the three.
Although you are dealing with weapons, Zeljkovic says it is a very safe sport. “The equipment used and the material they are made of provides a high level of protection.” The basic protective gear includes a mask, gloves, jacket, and pants. Most local programs or clubs will have this equipment on hand for you to give the sport a try, so no need to go out and immediately buy your own.
Part of the sporting equipment includes a custom wheelchair used during competitions. The chair is a certain height and locked into place, or stationary, while fencing against an opponent. You can start out using your everyday chair, according to Team USA Parafencer Ellen Geddes. “But it is built differently than the fencing chair. When you start thinking about heading to a competition, you should consider getting your own fencing chair,” she said.
TIME TO BOUT
The main difference between Olympic and Paralympic fencing, according to Zeljkovic, is the fact that you are sitting in a chair and are stationary. “Instead of moving back and forth with your feet, you are moving your body instead. The technique is similar.”
When competing in parafencing, the goal or objective is to earn points through touches to your opponent. Each competitor has an electronic scoring machine attached to their equipment that helps determine who gets the touch, or point. “Once you get locked into frame, plug into the scoring machine, and make sure you are comfortable with everything, you salute the referee and your opponent and the competition begins,” Geddes said.
A typical match, or bout, lasts three minutes and the first competitor to get five points wins. How you earn the point though varies greatly depending on which discipline you are competing in.
In foil, the torso area is the only legal target. In epee, the target is anything above the waist and whoever hits first gets the point (both fencers can earn a point if they touch at the same time). In saber, the target area is the same as epee and the point is determined based who has right of way.
At a competition, fencers are broken up into pools, with four to eight competitors in each pool. “You fence everyone in your pool and if you’ve done well enough, you can qualify for the next round, “Geddes said. After the pools, fencers are ranked and placed into elimination brackets. Those bouts also last three minutes but the winner is determined by who gets to fifteen touches. The fencer who moves through all the elimination bouts is declared the champion.
A MENTAL GAME
Given the comparison of parafencing to physical chess, it is as much a cognitive sport as it a physical one. “I like fencing, because it challenges you mentally and physically,” said Shelby Jensen, a Team USA member and Move United Elite Team Member. “You are trying to predict the opponent’s move three steps ahead. You can be as physically in shape as you want, but opponents who have the mental game down can beat you.” Geddes agrees. “You are trying to learn your opponent. Your opponent is very much a puzzle and you are figuring out what you can get them to react to, so you can get them to make mistakes.”
To get started in competition, there are several local tournaments that exist around the country. Eventually, you can work your way up to international tournaments. For those that want to compete at the highest level, Zeljkovic suggested it can take two to four years of serious training to become an elite fencer. “The more experience you have, the better fencer you will be. I want our fencers to be athletes first, then fencers. And it requires training, just like every other sport.”
“If you really want to compete at the elite level, it really is a full-time job,” Branch said. Branch watches tons of footage and does lots of analysis to improve his skills. Jensen trains five to six days a week. She too has watched tons of footage. “I have watched the Rio matches twenty or more times,” she said. “I also read, meditate and visualize. Physically, Geddes balances her training between regular cardio activities, weight training to stave off muscle injury, and body work in her chair to practice different techniques and moves.
There are many benefits to fencing. Whether or not you want to compete, or if you are competing at the elite level, or winning or losing, Zeljkovic says it is about improving yourself. “It allows you to be a better person or do things you may not have thought you could do. It is about feeling better, having a great time, and being a part of a community. You also think faster and develop discipline.”
About a half dozen Move United member organizations offer parafencing as one of the sporting options. You can check that list out at moveunitedsport.org/chapters/location-map/. But there are dozens of parafencing clubs across the country. Go to usafencing.org/parafencing-clubs to find the closest one to you. More and more fencing clubs are becoming more accessible and offering parafencing at their facility as well.
“I would recommend giving wheelchair fencing a try,” Jensen said, “It has helped me immensely with my disability and I never thought I would go this far, but it is possible for you as well.”