Estep-ping up to the challenge

By Doug Williams | June 12, 2012, 1 p.m. (ET)
Ryan Estep Ryan Estep competes at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center ahead of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

Ryan Estep was the tiny teammate, the kid who appeared to be the runt of the litter.

He was small, overlooked and underrated. 

For that, he is thankful. 

“I was very fortunate when I was a kid — and I know this is going to sound weird — to be small,” said Estep, 25. “I didn’t hit my growth spurt until between my sophomore and junior year in high school. When I was a freshman, I wrestled at 119. Even when I was in grade school I was one of the smallest kids.

“But I was the fastest kid and I was the meanest kid and I didn’t lose. Being smaller, you’ve got to be tough and you’ve got to find ways to win and you’ve got to find ways to even the odds. It’s really helped me throughout my athletic career, no matter what the sport, to excel.”

Less than four years after picking up a sword for the first time and knowing next to nothing about fencing, Estep has used that same force of will to become the nation’s No. 1-ranked wheelchair fencer in epée and foil, and the world’s fourth-ranked fencer in epée. 

He’s a two-time U.S. champion in both categories and is on his way to the Paralympic Games in London this August to compete in epée, having clinched his spot in August in the Wheelchair Pan American Championships in Brazil.

Estep will acknowledge he has athletic talent. The former high school football standout — who had grown to just over 6 feet and 175 pounds by his junior year — was getting college scholarship offers to play defensive back before he was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident before his senior season in 2005. He remains quick and strong. But he says his driving force is his competitive zeal.

“I won’t let a 5-year-old beat me in Checkers,” he said, chuckling.

Even his introduction to the sport came as a dare. When a woman who worked with him at a facility called Living Independence for Everyone (LIFE) near his home in Jackson, Miss. — where he was doing peer support — told him she could beat him in fencing, he said, “I don’t even know what that is, but no way.”

After a quick introduction, he discovered she was right.

“She mopped the floor with me,” said Estep, who also learned his conqueror, Sonia Fogal, was a member of the U.S. national wheelchair team. “I didn’t even know how to hold a weapon.”

But Estep had found something he liked. Within a few months, after lessons and training, he reached the national championships in 2009 and earned a silver medal.

But Estep acknowledges he was too rough around the edges. 

“I didn’t know what I was doing at all,” he said. 

He needed someone to polish his skills and take him to the next level. Someone like Les Stawicki.

Stawicki, the current U.S. Paralympic coach, was at those national championships and saw Estep compete. Stawicki approached Estep and invited him to train at his academy in Louisville, Ky. Since then, Estep has spent one to two weeks per month training under Stawicki in Louisville. The remaining time is spent following Stawicki’s training guidelines while working at the Sword Sports club in Shreveport, La.

“Once I started I’ve had some really good success,” Estep said. “But it’s not all due to me, of course. I have the best coach in the world, hands down. I’ve been all over the world and I have the best coach. He came from Poland; he was the Polish national coach. He’s coached in every Olympics for the last 40 years. He is an amazing, amazing man. …

“There is no way I would have been able to do close to what I’ve done with just picking up a sword for the first time, not knowing what fencing was three years ago, to being No. 4 in the world. There’s no way I would have been able to accomplish that without him.”

Estep has quickly climbed up the national and international rankings and is ahead of where he and his coach thought he’d be now. Their hope was he could make the U.S. Paralympic team for London and then perhaps medal in 2016. Now, Estep said, he believes he has a shot at a medal in London.

“I really feel if I fence my best and fence really smart I have an excellent chance,” he said.

Estep said he approaches fencing the way he approached wrestling or football. Because he was conditioned to find an edge that would equal the playing field against bigger opponents, he would do more film study, do more lifting, put in more time and constantly refine his techniques. As a fencer, he puts in hours of film study with Stawicki, on himself and opponents, to improve his own game while looking for others’ weaknesses.

“I have to be meticulous about everything,” he said.

Also, when he trains at Sword Sports, he often trains against able-bodied fencers.

“It’s good for me because they have better movement and are a little bit faster than me, obviously, and it really helps me to focus on my technique,” he said.

Still, at the foundation of his success, is an inner drive to be as good as he can be.

“I was never the biggest, the strongest or the fastest kid on the football team,” he said, “but there was no one out there that wanted to win more than I did.”

Other competitors and spectators can literally hear how much Estep wants to win. When he scores a touch or wins a bout, he screams in triumph.

“I’ve just got to let it out,” he said.

When he won in August to clinch his spot at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, he said he screamed so loud and long that his friends back in Mississippi and Louisiana “could hear me from Brazil.”

Estep’s iron will was never more evident than in the days after his car accident in 2005.

With the season-opening football game a week and a half after his extensive spinal surgery, Estep vowed he would go to the game.

He made it his primary mission, though the people in charge of his rehabilitation said he would never do it.

“I told them, ‘You’re crazy, I’m going to do it.’ You tell me anything I need to do, I can do it,” he said. “They made me roll up a hill (to the stadium), and I was almost in tears rolling up that hill, but I made it to that football game. A week and a half later, I still had staples in my back, and I’m rolling up this hill in like 95-degree Mississippi weather.

“But I filled the gap with love of sports. I didn’t miss a single football game my senior year.”

Now, Estep has the same focus on London. Even if he doesn’t medal, though, he said he will consider himself a winner.

“I’ll be able to look back on my first three years of fencing and be extremely proud of myself for the accomplishments I’ve gotten in such a short period of time,” he said.

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Doug Williams is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.