Wheelchair fencing is fencing that was adapted for wheelchair users. It is governed by the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation (IWAS) that is a federation of the International Paralympic Committee and is one of the sports in the Summer Paralympic Games. This fast-paced sport of tactics and technique features three different weapons. It is played by athletes with upper-body mobility, including athletes with lower-body amputations, cerebral palsy and spinal cord injury. At the Paralympics, men and women compete in separate events. Fencers compete in individual and team events.
Wheelchair fencing was developed by Sir Ludwig Guttmann, the founder of the Paralympic Games and has been a part of every Games since the first Games in Rome in 1960, but it wasn’t until 1996 that Team USA competed in wheelchair fencing for the first time. Originally, athletes used heavy brown wheelchairs, known as travaux chairs.
As wheelchairs became lighter over time an individual would crouch behind the athletes’ chairs, hanging on to the wheels in order to keep them stable. Now wheelchairs are fastened to rails on the piste, or frames that are fastened to the floor. These frames measure at 13 feet long by 5 feet wide and are angled at 110 degrees so that the fencers’ sword arms directly oppose each other. The distance between the opponents, however, varies depending on the arm length of the fencer with the shortest arm reach.
In order to ensure safety, wheelchair fencers must wear protective gear including protective masks, puncture-resistant jackets, breeches and gloves. Each event requires use of different swords called the epée, foil and sabre. The lightest of the three weapons is the foil, weighing less than a pound. It is also the most flexible sword. This sword was modeled off the court sword. When using the foil, the fencer’s primary target is the opponent’s torso. During the foil bout, protective shields cover the wheelchair.
The epée is the heaviest weapon and more rigid. It also features a larger hand guard to protect the fencer from the stiff blade. When using the epée, the whole body above the waist is a target. In epée bouts, metal aprons are used to make sure touches aren’t registered outside of the target area.
The sabre is like a cavalry sword in that it’s short, flexible and ideal for faster movements. Unlike the other two swords, the sabre is shaped like a blade and has a flat edge. Fencers usually score hits with the edge of the weapon by hitting a target area anywhere above the waist.
Like many adaptive sports, athletes can be part of one of two classifications in order to ensure a fair competition. These classifications are based on the athletes’ abilities:
Class A -- athletes with full trunk movement and good balance
Class B -- athletes with no leg movement and impaired trunk and balance functions
The rules are based on those of the International Fencing Federation (FIE) with appropriate amendments made to meet the needs of the wheelchair fencers. Fencers are not allowed to stand up from their wheelchair during the bout, so they rely on ducking, half-turns and leaning to dodge their competitors’ touches.
Competitors are electronically connected to a scoring box that records the hits on their opponent. In the beginning rounds, each bout, or competition between the two components, lasts three minutes. The first fencer to score five hits wins. In the knockout stages of the competition, each bout consists of three three-minute rounds. The first fencer to score 15 hits is declared the winner.