By Martin Cleary
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the precise and competitive lives of high-performance athletes around the world. But for one young Canadian fencer, this frightening inconvenience may be a blessing.
When the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo were postponed in March 2020 for one year, Toronto fencer Jessica Guo was a left-handed foil fencer on the rise, but only 14. The pandemic pause has not been a problem, but rather a positive in her development.
“That year of growth between 15 and 16 may end up being the difference between not hitting the podium and being on the podium,” said Ottawa’s Paul ApSimon, the Canadian Fencing Federation’s foil discipline head coach.
Guo, who turns 16 about a month before the start of the Olympics in July, is Canada’s top woman on the senior world foil ranking list at 15th. Part of the national team program since she was 11 years old, Guo enters the Games with momentum.
Earlier this month, Guo travelled to Cairo with the national team and won her first two world championship medals in separate individual competitions on back-to-back days. She had 22 pool and tableau elimination bouts and won 21.
On April 6, Guo took the bronze medal at the world junior championships. After going 6-0 in pool matches, Guo won four tableau matches, including her quarter-final over second seed and former world junior champion Lauren Scruggs of the United States, 15-12.
When Guo lost 15-12 to junior world No. 1 and third seed Nicole Pustilnik of Israel, she missed a chance to fight for the gold or silver, but earned a bronze medal, which was her first at the world championships.
The next day, Guo competed in her own age class at the world cadet championships and became the first Canadian woman to win a world fencing title. She went 6-0 in pool matches and 5-0 in her tableau elimination bouts.
Guo had tight matches in her first two cadet rounds, after a first-round bye. But once she was into the more meaningful matches, she was in total control, beating two Russians and one American, allowing only 20 touches in her quarterfinal, semifinal and final to seize the gold medal.
For the past three years, Guo has been fighting on the demanding World Cup and Grand Prix circuits, gaining senior experience and the occasional confidence-building result. At the 2019 Pan Am Games, she won individual and team silver medals.
Guo has qualified for the Olympic individual foil competition through her world ranking and will play an important role in the team competition with Eleanor Harvey of Hamilton, Kelleigh Ryan of Ottawa and former Ottawan Alanna Goldie of Calgary.
Canada earned its berth in the Olympic women’s team foil competition in March 2020, and is ranked sixth in the world behind Russia, Italy, France, United States and Japan. The team has trained this year in Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal.
The sixth-seeded Canadian squad will face third-seeded France in its opening team match. Canada has defeated France in the recent past without the offensive-minded Guo.
“I started including Jessica in our national team program when she was 11 and she has been on the radar the last four years,” said ApSimon, who had Guo gain international experience as a pre-tournament sparring partner.
At the 2017 Pan Am championships, she warmed up eight different fencers, including all three medallists and didn’t look out of place. At age 13, the first year she was eligible for World Cup/Grand Prix meets, she also was preparing the best fencers for the 2018 worlds in China.
Guo is a member of Toronto’s HuaHua Fencing Club, where she has received sound fundamental coaching. She also separates herself from many fencers because she has the ability to operate her hands and feet independently of each other.
“Most fencers take years to do that one thing,” ApSimon added. “It’s a pleasure to work with someone like that. She’s a big-day performer and thrives in those situations.”
Guo’s first Olympics could be eye-opening.
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