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Wheelchair Fencing Has Come Naturally To Ellen Geddes, Now The Top-Ranked Woman In The U.S.

By Karen Price | Sept. 16, 2019, 4:13 p.m. (ET)

Ellen Geddes posing at the 2019 IWAS Wheelchair Fencing World Cup training camp at the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.


At its most basic level, the sport of wheelchair fencing isn’t difficult to grasp, Ellen Geddes said.

“Hold this weapon, sit there, hit that person,” she said. “Very easy.”

At an elite level, of course, there’s a lot more to it than that. Geddes, 31, has progressed to that elite level quickly since her first competition in 2012 to now, as she awaits the start of the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports (IWAS) Wheelchair Fencing World Championships beginning Tuesday in Cheongju, South Korea.

“The nuance of it, the ability to do it well and feel confident and read another person’s movements and make predictions based off what you see, that’s an ongoing process,” said the Paralympic hopeful and Johnston, South Carolina, native.

Geddes spent most of her life riding horses until an automobile accident in 2011, just after her 23rd birthday, left her paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Fencing wasn’t a sport that ever crossed her mind until she ran into some national team members training at the Shepherd Center, a hospital in Atlanta specializing in spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation, in preparation for the 2011 world championships.

“Their captain asked me if I thought it would be fun to stab people, which does sound fun, objectively speaking,” she said. “I was interested in participating right off the bat that way.”

She launched into competition quickly. Part of the reason was because the best way to learn, she said, was to start going to national competitions and take advantage of the different vendors who offer the opportunities to try new grips, new weapons and new clothing.

Another reason was because when it comes to women wheelchair fencers in the U.S. who compete in the B category for more severe disabilities, there aren’t many.

“Three,” Geddes said. “So I think they were very inclined to encourage me to go and do it where perhaps another country with a larger bank of people in my category to choose from might have held me or trained me a little longer before sending me to the wolves.”

It turned out that Geddes was perhaps more of a wolf than she knew.

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She won the bronze medal in both epee and foil at the North American Cup in December 2012, competed at her first grand prix in May of 2013 and then went to the world championships for the first time that same year.

While there, her fencing chair slipped as she was transitioning to her everyday chair and she fell, landing in such a way that she broke her femur. The fact that she didn’t let that stop her from competing, however, was a sign to her that she was in it for the long haul and loved it enough to really commit to training and seeing how far she could go.

Geddes trains in foil more than epee because her home club is a foil club, she said, but she likes both for different reasons.

“I’m very good at being patient and waiting the other person out and not getting frustrated if things are taking time, and that strength plays well in epee,” she said. “Foil is a much different kind of tactic and different kind of smart.”

Both, however, require problem-solving and being able to read and react to what the other person is doing, and figuring out people has always been something that’s interested Geddes, she said.

One of the things that makes wheelchair fencing unique is the hand speed. It’s much faster than in able-bodied fencing, she said, and whenever an able-bodied fencer tries it from Geddes’ chair or watches her in action that’s one thing that takes them by surprise.

“You have to be able to parry and you have to be able to use your blade to defend yourself because you can’t back up,” she said. “You’re in a fixed position. You can’t run backward down the strip.”

Geddes missed out on the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 after a series of setbacks that included a woman from Argentina pulling out of the zonal championships and therefore leaving the field with too few athletes to make it a Paralympic qualifying competition and then trying to qualify in the A category but falling short.

The process was frustrating and even sapped Geddes’ motivation for a time, but now with less than a year remaining until Tokyo she’s in a better place all around.

She’s finished in the top eight in three Paralympic qualifying events so far and is the top-ranked U.S. woman in both foil and epee: No. 9 in women’s epee, No. 13 in women’s foil in the Paralympic rankings and No. 8 on the combined world ranking list. With the success, she said, she’s finally starting to find some faith in herself and trust herself heading into the world championships and, hopefully, the Paralympic Games.

“It’s really wonderful,” she said. “I just didn’t come into this with the expectation that I’d do this well, so it’s nice to see the work I’ve put into it has panned out. I’ve put a lot of effort into it and it’s nice to be in a position where I could maybe medal more than scrape by by the skin of my teeth to make it to the Paralympics.”

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.