Written by Matt Johnson for Sask Sport
When wheelchair fencing begins on August 25 at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, it will mark 551 days in between competition for Asquith’s Ryan Rousell.
Rousell, who is one of four Canadian wheelchair fencers set to compete at the Games, will be making his Paralympic debut by taking part in the Class A epee and sabre events, the latter of which he enters as the 15th-ranked fencer in the world.
Saskatchewan has only ever sent one fencer to an Olympic Games – Alan Francis in 1992. Rousell is set to be the first ever Para fencer to represent the province at the Paralympics.
But the Games were more than in question for Rousell.
“When they were starting to shut stuff down, I was like ‘well, I guess that’s kind of just the end of my Paralympic run.’ And I was kind of scared that I’d put all this effort in and wasn’t going to get anything out of it, you know? But that’s just not the case anymore. So, I’m happy that my work won’t be for nothing,” said Rousell.
And while the end to the long layoff is certainly welcomed, it doesn’t come without uncertainty. Rousell last competed at a World Cup event in February 2020 in Hungary. While he notes he has previously competed against every fencer who will be at the Games, how they stack up against one-another is anyone’s guess.
“It’s kind of an enigma for all of us,” he said. “We’ve all been so far apart from each other for a very long time that our styles and our ways of actually fighting could have drastically changed. I’m just trying to get all the information and pieces together to make sure that I’ll be as prepared as I can be and then I’ll go from there.”
Rousell, who won Canada’s first-ever Para fencing gold medal at a World Cup event in 2018 in Montreal, notes he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t nervous, but he believes he’s prepared as much as he can for this month’s opportunity.
“I feel like I’m as prepared as I possibly can be at this time, and hopefully prepared enough to be able to do well on the international stage.”
The Paralympic stage in Tokyo, a city of nearly 14 million, is quite the contrast from the town of Asquith, where Rousell was introduced to the sport at the local club when he was around the age of seven.
The significance of Rousell’s Paralympic debut on the province’s fencing community, specifically the community of Asquith is something that isn’t lost on Rousell’s coach of more than 15 years, Doug Brecht.
“It is really neat for the Asquith club,” said Brecht. “When you consider the fact that our community is only 600 people, we joke that we are per capita the largest fencing club in the country, because we’ve got basically a club membership of about 20 people and a town of 600.
“The people in the town had been really, really supportive of Ryan and of the club. They’re constantly assisting us with bottle drive donations and attending any fundraisers that we hold and he’s been getting lots of well-wishes and congratulations online for what he’s accomplished.”
The first-time Paralympian still calls Asquith Garde Fencing Academy his home club and it’s also where he discovered the wheelchair side of the sport in 2017, when Brecht organized Ruth Sylvie Morel — a women’s wheelchair fencing national team member and will be competing in her third Paralympic Games in Tokyo— to come visit Rousell.
Rousell was born with cerebral palsy and has a shorter right arm and leg compared to the left side of his body. Growing up, Brecht notes Rousell was always hesitant to transition to Para fencing but believes that it was Rousell’s persistence and development as an able-bodied fencer that helped him become the skilled Para fencer he is today.
“He couldn’t advance and retreat as quickly as his opponents could. So he had to get a lot faster with his hand. So when he would do his attacks or whatever the case was, he developed a very fast hand,” said Brecht.
And ultimately through Morel and Brecht’s mentoring and eventually convincing him to compete in an international event in Netherlands, where he won his first international medal, he quickly came to realize that this opportunity, to be able to compete on the world stage was more than an achievable reality.
Rousell has mentioned not wanting to place his efforts on becoming one of the best in the world. He instead wants to focus his energy on his own abilities.
For the first time in a long time, Rousell will have that opportunity to be the best he can be in Tokyo.
“However, that turns out, I know I’ve tried my best and I went there and I experienced it and I’m ready for the next one.”
And in Para fencing, where fencers frequently compete into their forties, Tokyo has the potential to be only the beginning of something special for the 24-year-old Rousell.
Rousell opens Paralympic competition in the sabre on August 24 at 6 p.m. (SK time). Epee is slated for August 25 at 12:30 a.m. (SK time).