By Dan Plouffe
For Kelleigh Ryan and the Canadian women’s foil fencing team, this was their Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final, and it was headed to overtime.
In the past seven years, Canada had lost to USA every single time they’d met in competition, whether that was the Pan Am Games, Pan American Championships, or another international event.
But this one was different. It was on Canadian land, and the underdogs had a sold-out Toronto 2015 crowd behind them on July 25 at the CIBC Pan Am Field House in Scarborough.
Ryan and teammates Eleanor Harvey and Alanna Goldie had jumped out to a big 7-hit lead earlier, but the favoured Americans clawed their way back. After nine bouts of three minutes each, the North American rivals wound up tied at 37 hits apiece, with the winner to be decided in an extra period.
Ryan was a big reason why the match was headed there – the Ottawa native earned the best record out of the Canadian competitors with an 11-7 combined score in her three bouts with each of the Americans – but now it all came down to Harvey in the do-or-die point.
“It is so nerve-racking,” Ryan says of having to look on from the Canadian corner. “Oh my God, I go back and forth between watching and looking at the ground.”
The tension in the air was quite possibly unmatched at any other Pan Am Games event, but Harvey ended it six seconds into the extra period with the triumphant blow that set off a spectacular red-and-white celebration in the stands and on the piste.
“I think I swore a lot and I screamed a lot,” laughs Ryan, who jumped up from her chair once Harvey won it, parading over to her teammate pulsating on the ground, overcome by emotion.
It was a moment a long time in the making for women’s foil national team coach Paul ApSimon, who estimates they’ve faced USA around 30-40 times within the last five years, usually losing by 10-15 hits.
“On paper, there is no way we should be anywhere close. (USA) were bronze medallists at the World Championships last week, (Pan Am individual champion) Lee Kiefer is ranked #3 in the world, she’s won a couple World Championships,” highlights ApSimon, the leader of RA Centre-based Ottawa Fencing. “To be able to do it on home soil is special.”
The chance to simply spend some time in Canada was a luxury for Ryan. The University of Ottawa/Carleton political science masters graduate is now based in New York City along with her boyfriend/coach Alex Martin, working part-time as a personal trainer, and as a receptionist at the club where she trains alongside a number of strong Team USA and Columbia University fencers.
Most fencing competitions are in Europe, and Ryan arrived in Toronto straight off a plane from Russia and the World Championships, where she had “not my best” showing, placing 54th in the individual event and 10th in team.
“I was up at 4:30 (the day before the women’s foil competition began), and I wasn’t tired,” indicates the quarter-finalist from the Pan Am women’s individual foil event. “It’s the excitement of the Games.”
While Ryan got to enjoy the second Pan Am Games of her career in Toronto, she’ll face a road that’s harder than usual to the 2016 Olympics, which would be her first.
Men’s and women’s foil, epée and sabre events are contested at just about every international competition, however the International Olympic Committee limits the total number of fencing athletes that can take part in Olympic competition, so each Olympic cycle, one men’s and one women’s team event is not contested, on a rotational basis. For Rio 2016, women’s foil and men’s sabre have the short end of the stick.
“It sucks,” Ryan states flatly. “I’m really glad that women’s sabre was added (to the Olympics in 1996), but it’s really unfortunate that fencing loses for that.”
The Canadian foil women placed 7th at the 2013 World Championships, and are a young group that could still challenge for the Olympic podium come 2020.
“We really hope that we’ll all stay together,” signals Ryan, the eldest member of the team, who would be 33 come the Tokyo Olympics. “It’s not old in the fencing world. As long as I’ve got funding, I can keep going, and I really want to. Hopefully life just doesn’t get in the way – careers and stuff like that.”
Ryan does plan to chase an individual berth for the 2016 Olympics by attending every World Cup and satellite competition next season to accumulate world rankings points. It’s an unfortunate and sometimes uncomfortable reality that likely only one Canadian will finish high enough to go to Rio, making her teammates also her chief rivals.
“We all know that one of us is going to go to the Olympics and the rest of us aren’t,” underlines Ryan, noting that a sponsor plans to nonetheless send those who don’t qualify to watch. “We’re going to be there no matter what, and I guess that helps a little bit.”
It’s also comforting to know that the close teammates will be behind whichever one of them wears the maple leaf in Rio, adds the Glebe Collegiate Institute grad.
“We’re actually really lucky because our team, we click really well,” indicates Ryan, who’s currently ranked 49th in the world, just behind Harvey at 43 and Goldie at 44. “We love to be together, and it sucks sometimes (fencing against each other), but we’re really good about afterwards – you separate yourself, take your time, and then you’re friends later on.”
There was certainly no bigger memory to bring the Canadian girls together than their Saturday night Game 7 triumph in Toronto – a moment Ryan made sure to soak up as best she could.
“When I looked up, I could see my parents, and my uncle, I could see everyone wearing red, Eleanor’s family, Alanna’s dad is there – everyone’s supporting us,” she recounts. “It’s just so exciting. We really wanted to bring the match home and sing O Canada in this gym.
“We finally did it.”