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Sit and Deliver 

The Rough and Tumble Sport of Wheelchair Fencing

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By Vicki Quade

KathleenRose Winter watched Errol Flynn movies as a kid, but never took much interest in his elegant swordplay. "No," she says, adjusting her mask and absentmindedly swinging her foil in my direction, "I took up fencing because of Star Trek and Jean-Luc Picard and Riker. I saw them fencing and that was it. I always thought fencing was interesting, but I didn't know you could do it in a wheelchair. I know you can do anything you want in a wheelchair, but I didn't know you could do organized fencing."

I duck to avoid getting hit.

"Hey, watch out," she says, laughing. "I'm the cutthroatiest of the cutthroat."

We're at Fencing 2000, on the tenth floor at 328 S. Jefferson--an ugly gray warehouse space with corrugated metal for walls. But the doors are wide, so Winter doesn't have any trouble maneuvering her wheelchair around the place.

Winter's a little nervous. She has only a few weeks to prepare for her most grueling bout, scheduled for June 8 in Cincinnati. If she wins she'll take the third slot on the U.S. Paralympic team and can compete in the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games this August.

It'll be the first time the U.S. has been involved in wheelchair fencing at the games. Five men and three women will represent the U.S. Winter is the only Chicagoan trying out. Her teammate, Ella Chafee, who lives in Oak Lawn, is already assured the second-place position, and Terri Cecil-Ramsey, from Louisville, Kentucky, has qualified for the first slot. All three are members of the U.S. Wheelchair Fencing Team, and all three are Americans, which one would expect for a U.S. team. But Winter is now competing for the third slot against two noncitizens, one from Ireland and one from Brazil.

According to Paralympic rules, anyone who's a U.S. citizen by the time the games begin can be a member of the U.S. team, even if you're not a citizen at the time of the qualifying meets. The fencers from Brazil and Ireland have both said they intend to become citizens. Winter and the Brazilian have exactly the same number of qualifying points--850. Whoever finishes at Cincinnati with more points will most likely qualify, unless the fencer from Ireland surges ahead.

As Winter is explaining all of this, her girlfriend, Elandria Henderson, paces the floor. "You know, if you can't make your own team, why bother coming over to the U.S. team and try to steal something from one of our own?"

"The best I can do is beat her," Winter says. "Then I'll get on, because I'm the best--not just by default."

Today Winter and Chafee will warm up for an hour, then work with their coach, Oleg Derkach, who studied fencing in Russia until he came to the U.S. two years ago. He'd never worked with wheelchair fencers until recently. "He didn't think we could do it," Winter says, laughing. "But once we started showing him our moves he got into it."

Derkach, a tall, blond, agile fencer who was on Belarus's national fencing team, hadn't even heard of wheelchair fencing until he came to Chicago. Asked whether wheelchair fencers are as good as the fleet-footed ones, he says, "Well, they have legs--they just can't use them. In fencing, it's important to keep your distance and move in faster. They can't do that, so their hands have to be faster."

Winter, who's 39, has osteogenesis imperfecta, a connective-tissue disability. By the time she was 13 she'd broken the bones in her legs about 50 times. It's a progressive disability, which means she got better as time went by. She stopped breaking her legs by the time she was about 15, but since then she's broken her back, her pelvis, her fingers and toes. Four years ago she had her spine fused, and shortly after that she took up fencing to strengthen her back and stomach.

Wheelchair fencing began in 1948 in England and quickly became popular throughout Europe. But it really didn't catch on in the U.S. until recently. The fencers stay in their wheelchairs, which are clamped into a frame. "It's more dangerous, 'cause you have to stay there," Winter says. "The only thing you can move is your upper body--in and out." They face each other at an angle, so that the tip of an extended sword comes to the elbow of the opponent--which means they're fencing about three feet apart.

Chafee, who's 51 and has been fencing for about 30 years, started when she was a student at the University of Illinois. A bout of polio had left her paralyzed at the age of five, and she'd taken up sports to strengthen what she could. Now she's grousing about how much money she'll have to invest before the August games. "I just learned that my equipment isn't any good for international competition. There are stiffer requirements for the Paralympic games." She'll have to replace virtually everything--her special knickers, socks, shoes, padded vest, mask, and four swords, two foils and two epees--all at a cost of about $1,000. "When I was at the U. of I. we didn't even have breastplates, which is amazing now when I think about it."

"I don't need my breast plates," Winter says, patting her chest.

"You're not gonna get hurt, are you?" shouts Henderson.

Winter winces. "No! When I put them on I'm like a target. I'm flat-chested. I should take advantage of it, right?"

"Well, not if you're going to get hurt," Henderson yells.

The epee is a thin, pointed sword without a cutting edge. In epee everything from the waist up, even the back of the wheelchair, counts as a target for a hit. The foil is more delicate and requires a sturdier grip. In foil the only target is the torso.

The thrusting (trying to hit your opponent) and parrying (keeping the opponent's sword from hitting you) is so fast you can't see the hits, which is why fencers wear a special metallic vest and electronic wire. When a fencer scores a hit, an electric current lights up a scoreboard.

The swords have protective coverings, but you can still get a puncture wound, which is why the fencers are so heavily padded. The mask alone weighs about four pounds and sits like a brick on your head and shoulders, its mesh front just far enough away from your face so it doesn't block your vision. "You're fighting--you're really fighting," Winter says. "You're not trying to be polite. You're told to go for the kill. When I first started fencing, I used to apologize. It's natural. You hit someone and apologize. But they would say, 'Look, you don't have to apologize.' 'But I just stuck you in the neck, for God's sake.' But it didn't matter. You stick them in the neck and keep on going. No apology.

"It's channeled my aggression. I'm not a nicer person." She laughs. "I'm more devious now. I'm always thinking of ways to kill people with my foil."

Before they begin a bout, fencers salute each other, the audience, and then the judges. If they don't follow that procedure during a tournament, they'll be penalized. "There's a lot of etiquette to all of this," Winter says. "You don't want to get points taken away for doing something stupid."

Today when Winter and Chafee begin a practice bout, they touch swords ever so softly and say, "On guard!" A few seconds of mental preparation pass, then Winter calls out, "OK, fence!"

For a few seconds sword clashes on sword, and the bout is over. One or the other has scored, and they immediately start again. It's tough to see the scores or any dirty dealing. "Opponents can whip you on the leg by a quick flick of the sword," Winter says. "Enough of those, and your concentration is on the welt and not on the match. On the leg is not illegal. It's just off target. They can do it all day if they want. They can whip you all day. They can knock you on the head."

Fencing isn't at all civilized. In fact, it used to be pretty bloody. "Do you know why the uniforms are white?" Chafee asks. "It's so you can see the blood. You had to draw blood in order to get the score. They needed to see it."

Yet duels in centuries past weren't always fought to the death. "The first person to draw blood was the winner," Winter says.

They go back to practicing, steel on steel.

"Oops!" Winter says, stopping the bout. Chafee giggles. "She got me in a private spot."

"I got her in her vaginal area," Winter laughs. "There's no points there."

"I don't know about that," says Chafee.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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