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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fencing + Wheelchairs = Awesomeness Incarnate

Tina Kelley/The New York Times

Mickey Zeljkovic, center, judges a bout between Timothy Mooney, left, and Bianca Hollywood.

MAPLEWOOD, N.J. — “Circle six, parry four, parry, riposte,” Mickey Zeljkovic chanted, running Bianca Hollywood, 13, through her fencing moves.

Bianca has spina bifida and a pronounced S curve to her spine. But when she wears her mask and lamé, the underjacket that conducts electricity during fencing bouts, she can compete with fencers who can walk, as well as those who cannot.

“It’s a lot of fun, but it takes a lot of time to learn some of the moves,” she said after her session at the New Jersey Fencing Alliance.

The fencing club, in this suburban Essex County township, is developing what are believed to be the only wheelchair fencing classes for young people in the Northeast. Mr. Zeljkovic, who has coached Tariq al Qallaf, an adult world-champion wheelchair fencer, trains a handful of young people in the program, which began in May.

At the club’s headquarters, essentially a 17,500-square-foot room that holds 200 able-bodied competitors some weekends, the wheelchairs are secured to brackets that keep them from moving. Each bracket costs up to $8,000 and positions the duelers an appropriate distance from each other (determined by the fencer with the shorter reach).

The wheelchair-adapted sport traces its roots to veterans returning from World War II, and is only recently attracting followers among young people, with training programs in Atlanta, San Antonio and San Diego, among others. There are now only 27 wheelchair athletes in the United States Fencing Association, so the staff at the club believes there is ample opportunity for young people who start now to reach national-level competitions and even the Paralympic Games.

George Janto, president of the fencing club, hopes to have at least a dozen young fencers in training this year, and is looking for more participants, whose training and competition costs would be covered by the club and its fund-raising efforts. His first six fencers have conditions like spina bifida and cerebral palsy, as well as spinal cord injuries, and were referred by the Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, N.J.

“Of all the sports they can participate in, that are offshoots of standing sports, fencing has the least amount of special circumstances to fit a handicapped person,” he said. “It uses the same equipment and the same weapons. If there are 10,000 rules in fencing, 9,990 apply to wheelchair fencers.”

In fact, fencing at such short range, without the use of a lunge — the fundamental offensive move — can prove a challenge for able-bodied fencers who sit down for bouts with their peers in wheelchairs.

Mr. Zeljkovic’s wife, Jelena, who also works at the club, said, “You’ve got to use everything in a closer distance, and you have a shorter amount of time to think of what you’re going to do — you’ve got to think very fast.”

Mr. Zeljkovic, a five-time Serbian national fencing champion in all weapons who came to Maplewood via Kuwait to coach wheelchair fencing, added: “Fencing is like physical chess for them. They have to be very quick, and make the right decision in a particular time. They must think two to three movements in front.”

Bianca’s mother, Toni Hollywood, remembers watching her daughter sit alone in her chair at the playground at her elementary school during recess. The staff brought a desk out for her so she could play board games, but she was excluded from the physical fray.

Bianca throws the discus and shot on the Lightning Wheels track team at the hospital, but wanted to try more activities. After rejecting opportunities to play wheelchair hockey, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis, Bianca was excited to attend a fencing demonstration at the club in May.

“She was ear-to-ear smiling that night, and she’s been coming back ever since,” Ms. Hollywood said. “For her, she’s not that strong an athlete. She has perseverance. I think this is more of an intellectual sport, and it seems to suit her.”

Trisha Yurochko, marketing coordinator for the hospital and the head coach of Lightning Wheels, said of the team members who have started fencing, “Everybody looks at them differently.”

For some of the duelers, she said, “In track, they give me their all, all the time, but they’re not consistent medal winners.” But in fencing, they have found a new competitive edge.

“It’s something they can compete in and do well,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Janto has plans to raise money so the group of wheelchair fencers can compete in the Summer National Championships in Atlanta in July. Colleen Mooney of Clark, N.J., who brings her son, Timothy, 15, to the weekly lessons, has noticed changes in the young people since May.

“They have a lot more confidence in themselves, that they can do what other children can do,” she said. “They may have their own special way of doing it, but they can it do like anyone else.”