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The Leon Paul




John Willis

Not every 2012 Olympics hopeful is currently a teenage tiro. Jon Willis is 26, which means by the time of the London jamboree he will be 31, a veteran in these days of young people's games but, he reckons, an age which will see him at the peak of his. This happens to be fencing, a sport in which Britain has never had a men's Olympic champion. But Willis is ready to have a stab at it, in every sense.

Last month he became the first British épée fencer in over a quarter of a century to win a World Cup event with his victory at the Hedenheimer Pokal in Germany, which in fencing-speak is big licks, the most prestigious competition outside the Olympics and world championships, with a field of 195 top international duellists.

Small wonder Willis's celebrations mirrored those of one of Jose Mourinho's men scoring a match-winning goal - though he did keep his shirt on. "Yes, I did go a bit mad," he confesses. "But it made all those grinding years of hard work and dedication worthwhile."

Walsall-born Willis sharply contradicts the image of fencing as being swordplay for toffs. A postman's son, he now lives in a modest semi in Stockport with his parents, brother and sister, and works stacking shelves and taking orders at the nearby B&Q, although he does have a degree in engineering and accountancy qualifications.

An activity which has been romanticised from Blackbeard to Bond, via D'Artagnan and Co, fencing is one of only four sports to feature in every Olympics. Willis calls it "boxing without the hurt" and models his training, from roadwork to sparring, on that of another Hit Man, the unbeaten world champion Ricky Hatton. "I've never met him, but I've seen him on television explaining what he does and I try and take pieces of his routine and adapt them to mine. But you also need the explosive speed of a sprinter, because it is very much a stop-go sport. You can be going for anything between five and 30 seconds to score a point, then it's a slow walk back before getting stuck in again."

Six-footer Willis began fencing as a schoolboy. "I played every sport possible. My dad was sporting mad and he passed it on to me. After meeting a fencing coach named Bob Merry, who was going around all the local schools encouraging kids to take it up, I decided to have a go, joined an after-school club, and won a team foil competition. Then I entered Under-15 competitions, came second in the first and won the next two.

"It was all still a bit of fun. I was playing junior football and cricket, and fencing didn't mean that much to me. But I kept at it and because I was so tall it was decided I was better at the épée, where my height suited counter- attacking. I borrowed my coach's épée, entered the North-west Under-16s and to my surprise won it."

His first senior competition was the Merseyside Open when he was 15. "I got to the quarter- finals. Then the head coach at Stockport Sword Club, Professor Andrew Vincent, took me aside and told me he thought I had potential. But he said, 'You've got to behave yourself, commit yourself to the sport, don't mess me around and do exactly as I say'. He offered to coach me but I couldn't afford lessons at about 50 quid an hour - my dad was unemployed at the time - so he said he'd do it for free providing I followed his rules.

"He had a great reputation, at 32 the youngest professor of fencing in the country. He took me under his wing and we've worked together now for 11 years, and I've only just stopped calling him 'Sir'. We've done all right together. Now fencing is really my life."

Willis did find time to go to Manchester Metropolitan University and earn a 2:1 in engineering, and later worked in accountancy. "But my fencing started to go backwards at a rate of knots because of the hours I had to put in." After three years he thought of quitting after winning a Commonwealth silver medal. "It was a case of do I fence or do I get a real job and settle down? It was my parents who convinced me I should carry on, and promised they would support me as much as they could. At about this time, I got an email from B&Q offering me a place in their partnership scheme, which gives you a full-time wage for working a part-time week, with time off to train. It was a godsend, because that's when fencing changed for me and became my job.

"But I didn't handle it well for the first six months and slipped from the British No 1 to No 11. Then I spoke to a few people like Kelly Holmes and Ellen MacArthur about how to cope with the pressure and they explained to me that no one can teach you that, it's something you've got to do for yourself, so I got to grips with people expecting me to win and went out and enjoyed my fencing."

Domestically, he has won every major championship. "What excites me most about the sport is the fighting aspect of it. Every point is different. It's not like swimming, where you swim a length and then do another one, or running, where you go round in circles or run hell for leather for 100 metres. It's not repetitious. It's like a physical game of chess almost, you've got to outwit your opponent as much as outfight him."

One problem with living in the north is a lack of top sparring partners, which is why he is moving to London to live in a house with other fencers under the aegis of British Fencing. "Beijing is probably a bit too soon for me by about a year or 18 months," he says. "I'll do my best to get there, but the odds are not good.

"My real goal is London 2012 - by then I'll be the optimal age for an épée fencer. There's a guy in the top 15, a Russian-Canadian who is 42 with one kidney, and I've never seen someone with such hand-speed in all my life. He came third in the world championships, which shows that if you've got skill and ability allied to experience you can do a lot.

"I remember fencing Bill Hoskyns [a six-time Olympian who was world épée champion in 1958] when I was 18. He was in his sixties and beat me. Everyone found it hilarious that the up-and-comer should get his arse kicked by this old man. Again it proves that if you've got experience you know what you are doing. I'm still comparatively young experience-wise, but I will be that much more mature by London, and I hope much better."

Willis, who is on the development level of Lottery funding, has a girlfriend, an athlete whose name he will not reveal: "I like to keep my sporting and social lives separate." He steps up to the piste again for a major Olympic qualifying tournament in Paris on 10 May. He has had two weeks out with a tendon injury, and is going to Bath University for a week's training with the modern pentathletes. "I can't wait to get down there and stab somebody," he laughs.