Country boy Joey Brinson is fencing his way to Rio

By Doug Williams | Sept. 16, 2015, 2:55 p.m. (ET)

Joey Brinson, pictured to the right, competes against Russia's Alexandr Kurzin at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. 

From almost the moment Joey Brinson first donned fencing gear and dueled with an opponent, he knew the sport was for him.

Having been an athlete all his life growing up in Mississippi — playing football, soccer, baseball and running track before a car accident at age 17 left him a paraplegic — Brinson knew he had some athletic pluses. In the nine years since he first tried wheelchair fencing, he’s been able to rely on his physical tools.

“I have great speed,” said Brinson, 39. “My strength is very good. I’m not a big guy; I’m 130-something pounds, but for my size I’m very strong. I have a pretty good reach, and that’s really key in wheelchair fencing.”

Plus, he said because he played so many sports, he knew he had the work ethic to get better.

“You can’t just show up and expect to be good if you don’t put in the work before you get there,” he said.

Those qualities took him a long way. 

In 2011, five years after taking up the sport, Brinson finished third in both epee and saber in the wheelchair fencing national championships and took a silver (foil) and bronze (saber) in the Pan American Wheelchair Championships. The next year, he fenced for Team USA at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, finishing 13th in saber.

In 2013, he was eighth in saber at the world championships (in Category B, for athletes with no leg movement and impaired balance) and was second in both epee and foil in the nationals.

Not bad for a self-proclaimed, football-loving country boy who likes to hunt, fish, eat barbecue and admits he never paid much attention to the sport until he went to a clinic on wheelchair fencing in 2006.

“I didn’t really know anything about it,” he said.

But as Brinson prepares to compete at the Wheelchair Fencing World Championships in Eger, Hungary, beginning Sept. 18, he’s no longer that fencer who relied on his athleticism and his competitive nature.

The 2015 version of Joey Brinson is a smarter, more tactical fencer. This year, he’s already won a national wheelchair title in epee and took third in saber. At the Pan American Championships, he won bronze in epee and saber. He’s ranked among the top 20 in the world in saber and top 25 in epee.

“The intelligence part of my game has come on a lot,” Brinson said. “I used to be … I would fight. The one thing my coach told me years ago, ‘You’re one of the best fighters here. We’ve just got to teach you how to fence smart.’ I’m understanding that now. I’m smarter with my tactics and I actually have more of a game plan for each bout. I’m not just fighting and trying to get one point and then the next.”

In saber, he said that means trying to think two or three steps ahead. In epee, it means playing it smart when getting ahead by a couple of points by understanding that double touches — points can be awarded to each fencer in epee for simultaneous scores — can work to your advantage.

“You can get double touches and win the match that way,” he said. “You don’t have to have a single light every time … You can set up more access to get your double touches and counterattacks.”

The learning has come through international competition, bouts with teammates and coaching.

“Experience is a great teacher, you know,” he said. “The guys that I go against all the time, I’ve gone against these guys for several years now and you know I’m learning what to do against certain opponents. They’re doing the same thing, so I have to counter what they’re doing against me.”

Brinson’s goal for 2015 was to accumulate as many points as possible toward earning a spot on the Paralympic team for Rio de Janiero in 2016. He hopes to compete in the Games in both epee and saber. He’ll also compete in both disciplines at the world championships in Hungary.

He’d love a podium finish (or two) in Hungary, but finishing in the top eight would be “awesome,” in terms of qualification points.

Getting back to the Paralympic Games is the overriding goal. His best memory in fencing is coming out for the Opening Ceremony in London. The bright lights, huge crowd and cheering left him dazzled and proud.

This year has been good, but he’s not satisfied.

“Yeah,” he said, when asked if 2015 has been a success. “I mean, I’m never happy unless I win, and it’s been decent. I always want to be better, though.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.