Ottawa-bred fencer was finally set to make her Olympic debut at age 33, but vows to push on after Tokyo Games postponement
By Dan Plouffe
Kelleigh Ryan’s journey to the Olympic Games is a tale of dogged determination and full-on devotion to a sport that dominates all aspects of her life.
The 33-year-old Ottawa native was never that can’t-miss prospect or her team’s star attraction. But ever since Kelleigh “The Rock” Ryan first earned her place on the Canadian women’s fencing team in 2008, she’s been there at every single championship competition for Canada – a run of 12 straight years.
Performance, then politics, kept her out of the last two Olympics, and then along came COVID-19 to throw in another plot twist – forcing her to flee from her home training base in New York City, and postponing the long-awaited culmination of her career at the Tokyo Games.
Ryan found love through fencing, she’s been to roughly 20 countries because of it, and she’s experienced huge highs and terrible lows that made her hate the sport she fell in love with as a teenager in Ottawa.
But what’s never wavered is her lifelong commitment to the slow and subtle art of learning and improving in one of the world’s most technical and tactical sports.
“I say it all the time: hard work always wins out over natural talent,” says Ottawa’s Paul ApSimon, the Canadian women’s foil national team coach.
When ApSimon first started working with Ryan at the RA Centre when she was 16, he saw a fully “physically-literate” athlete, but the signs weren’t entirely evident that the former Ottawa Internationals soccer player would one day become a consistent international competitor, and an Olympic podium contender.
Ryan was a solid fencer domestically in her age group, but she never made the junior national team.
“Some athletes just skyrocket to the top, but Kelleigh just kept on working,” ApSimon highlights. “She’s so, so stubborn. She’s just going to work at something until she gets what she wants.”
Standing 5’ 3”, Ryan is a defensive fencer who often wears down her opponents because she’s so frustrating to try to hit.
“People do not want to fence against Kelleigh, and that’s what makes her such an asset to our team,” explains ApSimon. “An extension of her personality comes out in fencing – her stubbornness, her perseverance – and I think that’s what’s allowed her to succeed internationally.”
Ryan’s parents encouraged her to try a new sport each season, which is how she landed in fencing as a 10-year-old.
“One thing that I liked at first was that I could beat some of the boys in my class,” smiles Ryan, who also enjoyed the sport’s one-on-one aspect, similar to her job as a soccer defender where she had to find a way to get the ball away from her opponent.
“I always wanted to represent Canada,” maintains the Glebe Collegiate Institute grad, noting the women’s national soccer team provided that inspiration initially before she began thinking maybe fencing could provide that opportunity.
“It didn’t happen right away, and that was hard for me,” adds Ryan, whose best-ever world ranking as a junior was 83rd. “I really wanted to make the national team, and I failed a number of times.”
While studying sociology at the University of Ottawa and later earning a political science masters at Carleton University, Ryan started gaining some traction. The two-time Ravens female athlete of the year started competing in senior World Cup events in 2007 and broke through in advance of the 2008 Pan American Championships to clinch her coveted spot on the national team – a position she hasn’t relinquished since.
“I am very proud of that,” underlines Ryan, crediting her multi-sport background and all-around athletic training for her relatively injury-free career. “I really wanted to be on Team Canada as a kid, and I did it.”
Committing to life as a full-time athlete, alongside her husband/coach
While in university, Ryan found she was thinking about fencing all the time. That led her to take the crucial step to devote her attention to her sport full-time.
In 2013, Ryan moved to New York City with her boyfriend (now husband), Alex Martin, a fencer from Calgary who’d decided to pursue a career in coaching.
The couple live in Jersey City, a 20-minute train ride and 10-minute walk to their fencing club, and the same distance from the fitness club where Ryan puts in around 10 hours a week as a strength and conditioning coach. She doesn’t consider herself a big-city person, and won’t go to Broadway shows or eat at different restaurants all the time.
“We just kind of live a regular fencer’s life but beside this big, amazing city,” explains Ryan, who trains in the shadow of the Empire State Building at the 137-year-old New York Fencers Club, alongside many of the top U.S. women’s foilists. “Six days a week, I could be training with them. I wouldn’t train that much because my body would fall apart and I’d go insane, but it’s so great because every night at practice, there’s at least one, if not five fencers who can really beat me.”
Martin acts as Ryan’s coach on a day-to-day basis (ApSimon chimes in when the national team is together). That of course creates a unique dynamic for the fencing-fuelled pair.
“My husband is very calm and thoughtful, so I’m lucky in that respect,” signals Ryan, who grew up accustomed to having someone close as coach, with her father filling that role in soccer.
“I’m not going to say there aren’t days where we argue,” she adds, but they’ve become good at working through their feelings and understanding each other. “We have a good personal relationship because of our fencing relationship, and vice versa.”
Martin has helped increase Ryan’s understanding of fencing, he offers a calming presence, “and he just kind of helped me stay on this journey,” highlights Ryan. “I don’t even know. I feel like I might have given up earlier if it wasn’t for him.
“I can’t say, but it’s hard to imagine that I could have done all this by myself and suffered through everything – so many times where I’m just like, ‘I suck at this! I can’t do it!’ And he’s like, ‘You know, a week ago, you were feeling really good about this, and this happened a month ago where you said the same thing and then you were fine a week later.’
“He really helps me rationalize.”
The number of days where Ryan’s felt frustrated and sick of fencing are countless – it’s a constant battle in some respects. But probably the lowest point she can remember came in December 2018 when she blew a big lead at a tournament in Italy, “and after I lost, I just sat down and I didn’t feel anything,” Ryan recounts. “And then I was like, ‘Oh my god, why don’t I feel anything?’ After that, I just started crying because I was sad that I didn’t feel anything. And I’m pretty sure I cried on and off for 2 hours that day.”
Ryan took a shower and was eventually able to talk it through with Martin.
“At the end of the day, I always come back to the fact that I just love competing and playing sports, and I want to keep on doing that,” notes Ryan, also a big fan of journalling. “That day, I was repeating why I was there, and that kind of helped me come back to life.”
The (endless) quest for the Olympics
Ryan has now competed on the senior international fencing circuit for 14 years. She’s maintained a world ranking between 24th and 49th every year since 2012. There have been many individual and team Pan American medals won along the way, and a pair of satellite World Cup golds. Ryan was the anchor and extra-hit hero as the Canadians cracked the top-8 for the first time ever at a global event.
And there was the epic team triumph on home soil for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games. Canada beat USA in overtime for their lone victory over the powerhouse Americans in the last 12 years.
It’s a lifetime worth of memories, but when it comes to fencing, the Olympics are truly king.
“It would kind of just round it all out,” the 4-time Pan Am zone individual medallist says of getting to the Games. “I figured if I could do that, then I could complete this whole sports journey.”
Canada was still emerging in women’s foil around the time of the London 2012 Games, and the 10th-ranked canucks didn’t qualify as a team. A 25-year-old Ryan was #2 in the country, so she didn’t get the lone Canadian entry in the individual competition.
Her team began to consistently hit the top-8 in world-class competitions in the lead-up to Rio 2016, and would have made the grade for one of the usual 8 Olympic team entries, expect that women’s team foil wasn’t part of those Games.
Men’s and women’s foil, epée and sabre events are all core disciplines, however the International Olympic Committee limits the total number of fencing athletes that can take part in Olympic competition. 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 got the short end of the stick.
“It was hard because we knew we had the people who could qualify,” reflects Ryan, who did go to Rio to support teammate Eleanor Harvey who’d shot up to #13 in the world to leave Ryan on the Olympic doorstep again. “But (missing out on 2016) may be part of the reason why I’m still going, so for that, I’m thankful, because some of my best fencing has happened in the last four years.”
Cursed canucks, cheering for the arch-rivals, and the big moment
Canada recorded its best all-time team finishes at the World Championships when they placed 6th back-to-back in 2017 and 2018.
To qualify for Tokyo, the top-4 teams based on accumulated points from international events would earn Olympic berths, while the next-best ranked teams from each zone would also claim entries. It therefore helped Canada’s prospects that USA were the defending world champs and had a good shot at being top-4 to open the door to a second team from the Americas.
The Canadians wasted no time posting some crucial results once the qualification window opened. They reached the final of the 2019 Pan Am zone championships and gave the U.S. a scare in a 45-42 bout, while Ryan hit the podium in the individual event.
“That was huge because I sort of struggled (at zones) the first few times I tried to qualify for the Olympics,” Ryan indicates. “In some ways, that felt bigger than the year before when I came 2nd because I had been thinking about that day for so long.”
At the July 2019 World Championships, Canada beat host Hungary and again had a close bout with USA (45-41) as the neighbours matched up in the quarter-finals. Add in a 5th-place performance from the first World Cup of the 2019-2020 season and Canada had done the work needed to safely ensure they’d be the top team in the Americas other than USA.
A top-4 ticket might have been possible too for the Canadians, but then things went wonky. At consecutive World Cups, Harvey broke a bone in her wrist from a freak hit during warm-up, Alanna Goldie got wiped out by the flu, and Ryan finished one event on the floor due to a stomach bug.
At the final World Cup for qualifying Feb. 21-23 in Kazan, Russia, Jessica Guo sprained her ankle badly in the individual event, then Goldie did the same in the team event. Canada didn’t have enough fencers left and had to withdraw.
“I’ve gone 10 years without ever even withdrawing a fencer from injury,” highlights ApSimon. “It was crazy.”
The poor results didn’t impact the qualification picture for Canada at that point however. The Canadians were already resigned to being cheerleaders for USA, hoping their rivals could hold onto a place in the top-4 so Canada could get the regional berth.
It was a murky picture, but Canada faced the prospect of losing their spot if the U.S. dropped a quarter-final matchup with Japan.
ApSimon is good friends with the U.S. coach “and he knew exactly what was at stake for us,” he recounts. “For them, it was nothing, they were going either way. But he assembled the girls and basically said to them, ‘Let’s do this for Canada, let’s pick it up for our zone.’”
Ryan was “just dying on the inside” while the bout was on, continually playing disaster scenarios through her head.
“I just sat by my bag and basically looked at the ground, and then looked out and asked my teammates what the score was, and then looked at the ground again,” recalls Ryan. “And then every once in a while, I would see Paul wandering around, and I was like, ‘OK, so Paul and I are experiencing the same thing.’”
Japan pulled ahead by 2 points in the late stages of the bout, “and all our eyes went, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen?’” ApSimon reflects, but then U.S. star Lee Kiefer came back to close out the match. “After Lee Kiefer scored their last hit, she tore off her mask and let out a celebratory scream, turned around and pointed to us and congratulated Team Canada on qualifying for the Olympics.”
There were plenty of tears as the Canadian girls hugged one another.
“It was so many emotions – excitement, relief and happiness,” recounts Ryan. “We’d been waiting for that day for so long and it was finally confirmed that we were going to go to the Olympics as a team. It was amazing.”
Ryan’s Olympic plans have of course changed drastically since the day her team qualified. Her first hint that COVID-19 would become disruptive was while she was in Anaheim for a training camp and a March 12 tournament that was ultimately cancelled.
She and her husband returned home, and within a few days “everything was closed in New York.”
Ryan and the people she knows in NYC have all remained healthy, but she heard that a Brazilian coach who’d been in Anaheim died from COVID-19.
“That was really sad to hear,” she says, “and just really kind of crazy to think that we were all together – it would have been two weeks since we saw the guy and he refereed one of my teammates that day…”
For a week, Ryan and Martin watched the numbers climb in New York – feeling grateful that they were in Jersey City, a little ways outside the hardest hit areas – but then on March 20, they decided to flee to Ottawa.
“We said, ‘Let’s get up there and closer to family,’” Ryan signals, “so we rented a car in New Jersey and just drove up and tried to stop as little as possible.”
Ryan didn’t want to risk staying with her parents – who are in their 70s – but fortunately their neighbour in the Glebe was away and they could stay there.
While she was self-isolating for 14 days, talk of Olympic postponement heated up, and Canada announced it wouldn’t attend a Games held in 2020. Ryan felt the Canadian Olympic Committee’s stance was designed in part to apply postponement pressure, and sure enough the Games were pushed back to 2021 shortly thereafter.
“I’m just really happy that they gave us an answer instead of us sitting there going, ‘Are we competing at the biggest event of our lives in a few months?’” Ryan highlights.
With the injuries and illnesses that struck the Canadian foilists in 2020, ApSimon thinks the postponement could perhaps turn out to be positive for his #6 world-ranked troops.
“We talked about that,” indicates the Henry Munro Middle School physical education teacher. “We haven’t had our team together, everyone on point, since the World Championships last year.
“Even if they had gotten healthy in time for this summer, we still haven’t been able to work as a team. There’s a lot of tactics. There’s a lot of trust that goes on and there’s a lot of belief in your teammate. That wasn’t fresh, so we feel that having the opportunity to do more team events next year is going to be a blessing.”
Harvey could also use an extra 6 months to heal her wrist, and then there’s the team’s 14-year-old phenom, Guo, who’s ranked top-16 in the world, and expected to be even better in a year’s time.
“Our objective going into Tokyo is to hit the podium,” states ApSimon, owner of the local TRYumph gymnastics, fencing and ninja club. “We felt that was a real possibility. We’ve beat every team in the world, with the exception of Italy.
“But a year later, as hard as it is, we feel our team is only going to get stronger, so we’re excited for that.”
For Ryan, the most senior member of the team, she had to shake her head and smile at the postponement news. “The Rock” had waited so long to get to the Olympics, and she’d expected her first Games would also be her last, with plans to retire shortly after Tokyo.
“It’s just funny. It’s like, ‘OK, fencing just really doesn’t want me to quit!’” laughs Ryan, who pledges that she will always remain involved in the sport even after her athletic career is complete. “It’s changed my plans, but I’m confident that I can stay healthy and motivated one more year.”
ApSimon doesn’t doubt it for a second. It’s just another chapter of stubborn determination that’s created an inspirational tale that he shares “all the time with a lot of my developing fencers, and also parents.”
“So many people can get so obsessed with the early success, and it drives me crazy because early success often leads them to stop working,” ApSimon indicates. “Nothing has come easily for Kelleigh. Everything she got was through hard work. She’s just persevered and continued to push.
“I’m so happy that she’s qualified for the Olympics. I think it’s an amazing story. Hard work pays off.”