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En Garde for Accessibility

UMD Fencing Club’s New Equipment Allows Athletes Who Use Wheelchairs to Participate in Sport

By Annie Krakower

Two fencers in wheelchairs use accessible fencing frame

UMD Fencing Club Vice President Noah Hanssen, right, thrusts his épée toward fellow club member Nicko Kioutas during a recent practice in the School of Public Health Building. The club’s new accessible frame allows Hanssen (below), an international parafencer, to safely compete.

Photos by Stephanie S. Cordle

En garde, ready, fence!

Épée in hand, University of Maryland Fencing Club Vice President Noah Hanssen ’23 lunges toward his opponent, twisting his body at the same time to avoid the rival swordsman’s swerves. He sneaks his weapon to his competitor’s side to record the touch, then immediately readies for the next round.

The action-packed bout, played to 10 touches during a club practice, is a blur of speedy skill—all performed while both fencers are seated.

This month, the UMD Fencing Club debuted its new accessible frame, which holds two wheelchairs steady at the proper distance and angles to allow parafencers to safely compete. Purchased with support from University Recreation and Wellness, the apparatus is a step toward more diversity in the sport.

“Hopefully, we can make our school more known for parafencing within the fencing community,” Hanssen said. “A lot of it is just awareness and pulling (in) the right people.”

Noah Hanssen with fencing gear

Hanssen, who has used a wheelchair since he lost the use of his legs in a car accident at age 7, grew up wielding toy swords with his cousins as they imitated their favorite characters from the “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings” franchises. He wanted to give fencing a try, but he could only find accommodations through historical fencing, a separate form of martial arts that focuses more on the activity’s medieval and Renaissance origins rather than the more familiar sport-style fencing seen in the Olympic Games and other competitions.

At a tournament during his junior year of high school that featured both, a referee who was familiar with parafencing helped connect him with a willing coach at the Tri-Weapon Fencing Club in Catonsville, Md. Hanssen shot up the ranks once he began sport fencing, training in Colorado Springs with the USA parafencing team after high school and winning the national championship in saber last July.

So when Hanssen transferred to UMD from Howard Community College in Fall 2021, he hoped to find a fencing community here. While accessible frames are standard at Tri-Weapon and in parafencing tournaments, they’re not common in clubs, and he was willing to go without if it meant he could join.

“’Please just let me fence’ was kind of the spirit of my email (to the UMD Fencing Club),” Hanssen said. “But (they) wanted to make sure there was stuff in place for me.”

Logan Torres ’23, club treasurer at the time, reached out to RecWell’s Club Sports. With funding from the Eppley Student Enhancement Fund, which supports programs and facilities that enhance student well-being, they were able to purchase the frame. It adds to other accessible sports and activities that RecWell has offered, like adaptive equipment at the Climbing Wall, wheelchair lifts and ramps in pools, and intramural goal ball, a modified, seated version of soccer for visually impaired participants.

Two fencers in wheelchairs fence

“Any deficit in accessibility is not on the individual, but on the environment,” said Hannah Witschey, a disability specialist with UMD’s Accessibility and Disability Service who also teaches adaptive skiing. “I’m excited that UMD is becoming more and more accessible.”

The frame includes hooks and straps to secure two wheelchairs, plus an adjustable metal bar in the middle to fix the distance between fencers based on their reach. For now, Hanssen uses his competition chair—which adheres to the sport’s required dimensions and has no armrest on the weapon side—on one end while another of the club’s 50 members sits in his everyday chair on the other. The setup has been beneficial for injured fencers too, said Social Chair Catt Gagnon M.A.A. ’23, and remaining seated makes all club members focus more on their blade work.

The club hopes to eventually get another competition wheelchair, but the frame is still a significant improvement over what they’d been doing before: having members pull up a four-legged chair to fence Hanssen while seated, or even just fencing him while standing. The group is also exploring possibly hosting “walk ‘n’ roll” tournaments, which allow both fencers and parafencers to compete, as it works to welcome more into the community.

“It’s a great sport, and we do have the accessibility now,” Gagnon said. “Why not bring it to other folks as well?”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.