Ryan Rousell was in Grade 3 when he watched fencing for the first time.
The Asquith Garde Fencing Association had put on a demonstration in his class, and Rousell was blown away by what he saw. He immediately went home and begged his parents to sign him up for lessons.
“Mom — I gotta do this. There’s swords and stuff,” he recalls saying.
Rousell, now 21, was soon enrolled at the association, where he developed a love of sabre, one of the three fencing disciplines that involves fencers trying to strike their opponents above the waist with the sides or tip of their weapon in order to score points.
Doug Brecht, who has been Rousell’s coach from the beginning, said it wasn’t long before Rousell developed “a fantastically fast hand.”
It was a necessary development. Rousell has cerebral palsy, which causes weakness in the right side of his body. His right leg is shorter, has less muscle mass and is slower to respond to commands than his left. When he stands and fences, Rousell can’t step out of the way when his opponents rush in to attack, so he fights back the only way he can: with fast and technically sound blade work.
“It’s challenging, but not impossible,” Rousell says.
Brecht knew that if Rousell was able to compete against other fencers on a level playing field, he would be among the best in the world.
So Brecht built a couple of wheelchair fencing frames and chairs in 2014, when Rousell was a teenager. There were no wheelchair fencers in Western Canada at the time, and Brecht hoped Rousell might be the first.
There was one problem: Rousell didn’t want to be a wheelchair fencer.
“To try and convince a 17-year-old to do something in a wheelchair when all his buddies aren’t, you just don’t want to do it,” Brecht recalls.
“Generally, teenagers are too cool to do something like that. And he didn’t want to appear as lesser than anyone else. And, at that time, he didn’t realize that wheelchair fencing isn’t a lesser sport.”
Two years later, Rousell received a visit that changed his mind. The Asquith Garde Fencing Association invited Sylvie Morel, Canada’s first wheelchair fencer, to the club for a tournament. The Quebec fencer talked to Rousell about wheelchair fencing and encouraged him to fly to Amsterdam to compete in a tournament.
He did so skeptically, and was amazed by what he saw.
“It was a really eye-opening experience,” he said. “It was really surprising to see the calibre of what these fencers are.”
Rousell eventually purchased his own fencing wheelchair and began training in the chair against anyone who would go up against him.
In wheelchair fencing, the chairs are fixed to the ground and fencers must remain seated while battling each other.
Brecht says many able-bodied fencers at the association enjoy sitting in the school’s chairs and training with Rousell.
“It actually benefits the hand aspect of their game,” he said. “They can’t move away, so what they’ve got to do is they’ve got to improve their basic technique, their blade work, their hand position, their timing.”
Kristen Van Marion, who has fenced with Rousell at the Asquith Fencing School for more than 10 years, said fencing against Rousell in the chair has made her a better competitor.
“I have to be faster with my hands when I’m fencing Ryan in the chair, otherwise he just hits me right away,” she says. “It’s improved my defence, it’s really improved my core because that’s a crazy core workout in that chair.”
Rousell has come a long way since his first tournament in Amsterdam. He is now among the top-ranked wheelchair sabre fencers in the world. He had one of his best performances in the spring of 2018 at the Wheelchair Fencing World Cup in Montreal, where he took gold.
“Even able-bodied, he was a good sabre fencer. When he went in a chair he was an excellent sabre fencer,” Brecht said.
“We have a saying in fencing: If at first you don’t succeed, you should have done what your coach told you in the first place. And so that’s kind of what’s he’s realizing now, was that if he had listened, he’d actually have another two-year head start on where he is now.”
Brecht and some of Rousell’s coaches talked about the possibility of Rousell going to the Paralympics in 2024. But Rousell doesn’t want to wait that long.
“If I can push enough, I’m going to make it to 2020 or I’m going to at least give my best to make it to 2020,” he said.
Rousell’s Paralympic dream came into sharper focus in late 2018 when he received funding from the Canadian Fencing Federation. He says the money will cover the cost of his travel to international competitions — and he has a lot of those coming up. In the coming months he’s scheduled to fence in the United States, Japan, Brazil, Italy, Poland and the United Arab Emirates.
“It’s going to be hectic,” he said.
To prepare himself, he’s been training three nights a week at the Asquith Garde Fencing Association and once a week at the Saskatoon Fencing Club, in addition to several sessions a week of strength training.
With all the training and travel, Rousell jokes that he’s lucky to have “the most understanding boss” possible: his dad, who runs the family farm just outside of Asquith and who, along with Rousell’s mom, is one of his biggest supporters.
Van Marion says it’s been incredible to see the change in her teammate since he decided to chase his Paralympic dream.
“He’s definitely more determined now,” she said. “He has a purpose in his training, whereas before he was just kind of figuring it out. Now I can see that he can see the path that he’s taking to get there.”
Rousell said the hard work doesn’t bother him, but admits the pressure to perform well has become “substantial” since he became a funded athlete.
“My coaches say, ‘No pressure, just focus on you, don’t worry what anyone else thinks,’ but the pressure is still there,” he said. “Because it’s not so much of what others expect of me, it’s what I expect of myself. And when I set my standards for myself too high and I let myself down, I get really down in the dumps.”
Brecht says he’s confident his athlete will be able to handle the stress and he knows Rousell’s family and teammates will rally around him as he chases his dream.
He said it’s “probable” that Rousell will represent Canada in the 2020 Paralympic games and that he’s “looking very positively” at the possibility Rousell will be on the podium in 2024.
“The 2020 Olympics is not the end. It’s just the beginning,” Brecht said. “Ryan’s got a good 20 to 40 years of wheelchair fencing left in him, believe it or not, and we’re expecting him to go to Paralympics multiple times and medal.”
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