It’s fair to say that most of the British fencing community left the Rio Olympic Games behind with a sense of mixed emotions. Richard Kruse coming fourth was an immense achievement but getting so close to a medal meant a slight sense of deflation. As time has passed, I’m sure we’ll all just remember how well he did. All I’ll say about the team event is that it didn’t appear to be our day! Now all we have to do is ponder the “will he, won’t he?” question – will Richard carry on to Tokyo? I do hope so. Last season he showed us that he’s still a major force on the World circuit and he demonstrated that in the toughest environment – Olympic qualification.
We also have to look at the bright young things too! There’s no doubt that our men’s foil talent pool looks promising and now that the men’s sabre squad are funded and in full-time training things are looking bright on that front too. It doesn’t stop there though. Our young men’s epeeists are a talented bunch too and a group that seem to travel well together. The ingredients are all there for a bright future for them. Let’s also not forget about our young women’s sabre fencers either. There is one in particular that I’m keeping my eye on.
That said; we must maintain a long-term perspective on the future of all of these bright young things. After all, fencing is a long-term development sport. If we all create the right environment for training and realistic expectations on performance we are more than half way there in terms of future success. So what’s the missing bit? For me, it’s inspiration and the often over-looked but mystical variable of creativity or invention.
I can’t give you the secrets to invention….I’m not sure anyone can. It’s down to the individual at the end of the day. What I can say is that we got inspiration in bucket-loads at the Paralympics in the shape of the smiling Piers Gilliver. He has been fencing for just six years, but this week the Cat A Wheelchair Epeeist and Foilist put himself on the fencing map and the British sporting map in spectacular fashion. He claimed Great Britain’s first Paralympic individual medal since 1988 (when Caz Walton won gold in the women’s epee C4-6 and Cyril Thomas won bronze the men’s sabre C4-6). The British men’s sabre team (Jack Bradley, Kevin Davies, Brian Dickinson and David Heaton) took the team sabre bronze in 1992 but we haven’t had a sniff since then……until Piers came along.
He battled his way through the preliminary stages of the epee event like a man possessed, topping his poule with five victories. China’s Sun Gang did him on indicators but he went into the quarterfinals ranked second. Whilst his next two matches were not walkovers, Piers looked in control as he took out Italy’s Matteo Betti, 15-11 and Zainulabdeen Al-Madhkhoori or Iraq, 15-10. Sun Gang did his job too, beating Dariusz Pender of Poland and teammate Tian Jianquan.
So a mouth-watering gold medal match was upon us and Great Britain had a chance for fencing gold! Piers adopted the same approach as he’d used most of the day – luring his opponent’s attack and working off it. Sun was ready for him though and took an early lead only for the Brit to level at 4-4. The Chinese fencer was matching Piers for work-rate and twice in the match the officials had to reposition the frame holding the wheelchairs in place. The Chinese World Champion was in control of the fight but Piers kept fighting. At 11-9 down the Brit was throwing the kitchen sink along with last night’s dishes at Sun. A beautiful flick to the arm from Piers took him to 12-11 down but would have served as a great morale booster. Sun took the score to 14-12 before asking for another adjustment of the frame. Edge of the seat stuff for the fencers and those watching too! Piers scored once more but Sun was not to be beaten and took the gold 15-13.
So it wasn’t quite gold for the Brit but his beaming smile suggested that his dream of a Paralympic medal had been the goal. Being so young and the fact that you can fence well into your forties in wheelchair fencing, suggests that this is only the start for Piers. It’s worth noting that his teammates, Gemma Collis and Dimitri Coutya also made the quarterfinals of their epee events, so Great Britain boast a group of great potential.
In the foil events Piers was unable to make it through the poule, but I’m sure we can forgive him that! Dimitri made the Cat B Foil quarterfinals but lost out to Hu Daoliang (CHN) 15-12.
Congratulations to Gemma and Dimitri and especially Piers for their results and the inspiration that they provide to us all.