New fencing team challenges athletes physically, mentally

Adaptive Fencing Team Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital 1Tim Volkers loves swordplay. He’s a fan of “Zorro,” “The Three Musketeers,” “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “Star Wars” (yes, a lightsaber can be considered a sword). And now he’s wielding one himself.

Tim is a member of Wheelchair and Adaptive Sports’ new fencing team, organized this year following success of the program’s adaptive fencing clinics. Despite his interest in the sport, fencing wasn’t on his to-try list.

“I’ve been able to keep up with most of my favorite recreational activities through the years, thanks to the staff at Mary Free Bed exposing me to different adaptive equipment,” said Tim, who has used a wheelchair since sustaining a spinal cord injury in a 1995 car accident.

“Over the years I’ve been able to water ski, downhill ski, compete internationally with tennis, race four-wheelers and keep scuba diving, among a few other things. Fencing was something I never thought I would be able to do, because, quite honestly, it never crossed my mind to look into it.”

But after participating in a clinic at West Michigan Fencing Academy, Tim was happy he discovered it. “I absolutely love it and would love to compete at a top level someday.”

Adaptive Fencing Team Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital 2The inaugural team, which has yet to settle on a name, also includes Kelly Case and Tyler VanHaitsma. They’re coached by Mike Nemecek, and the team is coordinated by recreational therapist Mike Burkhart.

The challenging sport, which debuted in the 1960 Paralympic games in Rome, takes skill, concentration and strategy, Mike said, calling it “physical chess.”

“Athletes who partake in this sport take what they do seriously,” he said. “Swordplay requires a great amount of finesse, endurance, skill and agility. A bout can be over in seconds.”

Athletes compete in wheelchairs fixed to the floor, limiting movement of the chair. They rely on ducking, half-turns and leaning to dodge their competitors’ touches. The first fencer to score 5 touches is declared the winner. Athletes play the best of 3 rounds in single or team formats.

Mary Free Bed’s team began practice in January. It competed in its first tournament, part of the Meijer State Games of Michigan, on Feb. 21 at West Michigan Fencing Academy in Grand Rapids. Mike expects the team to fare well enough to qualify for the State Games of America, which will be held in Grand Rapids in 2017.


Roger Maynard

I commend those that try new things and keep on living. Takes great courage to keep fighting and not giving up, and it’s great to hear of programs and people that provide opportunities for just that. Thanks.


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