HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-At-Home Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
Many retired elite athletes will tell you that coaching isn’t for them. Sherraine Schalm, a four-time Olympic women’s epee fencer and one of Canada’s greatest on the piste, counted herself among that group.
But her daughter Gaia changed all of that. One warm day in 2016, Schalm, who earned her bachelor of education degree at the University of Ottawa in 2001, was instructing Gaia how to swing a baseball bat and hit a ball.
Schalm told Gaia to relax her shoulders, watch the ball, exhale and swing. Four simple steps and “when she made contact with the ball, I reacted as if she’d just helped the Blue Jays win their third World Series,” she exclaimed in an email.
At that moment, a coach was born in the backyard of their apartment building in Peschiera del Garda, Italy. That was one of those moments, when Schalm realized she could be as passionate about coaching as she was about being an athlete.
As a high-performance athlete, Schalm competed in the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics and was fourth in women’s epee team in 2004. She won the 2006 World Cup title, and silver (2009) and bronze (2005) medals at the world championships.
Schalm is studying and waiting to take her Level 2 exam for her fencing master’s degree. It’s an involved process of practical and oral exams, conducted in Italian. Fencers must be associated with a club to become a coach. No freelancers.
Fencing coaches must complete two of the four levels of Fencing Master school and pass two in-person exams, both practical and theoretical, in Rome. She’s tested on her fencing knowledge as well as teaching and athletic training methodology.
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Schalm said the practical exam is very European: “done in front of a group of experts, made to show (and correct) your flaws, and show (and defend) your strong points.
“You have to respond to a panel of judges (all professional fencing masters) and demonstrate how you would teach certain actions. You practically have to give a one-on-one lesson with a student in front of the panel, who then ask questions.”
Since the Brooks, AB-born Schalm has been living in Italy for the past decade, the Italian language has become one of her skills. But the exams are challenging, as everything is conducted in Italian. No dictionaries allowed for written exams.
“I was shocked on Day One of our Level 2 course (summer of 2019 in Tuscany),” Schalm said. “The course instructor gave a very clear and very pointed speech that ‘coaching is communicating ideas so we need to speak grammatically proper Italian, if we hope to pass the exam.’
“I gulped and stumbled my way through the lesson. Thankfully, Italians are the most generous culture, when it comes to people speaking their language.”
When it comes to practising for her practical exam, she has recruited an older, baseball-bat-swinging Gaia as her guinea pig for lessons. This has allowed her to get some experience giving a lesson.
“However, during the ‘hard lockdown’ last year, I was unable to get the fencing swords I had stored at the club where I teach,” she added, “so I was studying and using nerf-foam swords to practise the actions. It was better than nothing.”
For the past few years, Schalm has been helping at a local fencing club, Treviso Scherma. She was honoured to be asked to join the club and has found it to be an amazing experience.
“It taught me how to teach, how to be a proper colleague, how to respect and be patient with the ups and downs of an athlete and not take their sometimes strange behaviour personally,” she explained.
“I understand the pressure of feeling that the performance was all up to you as an athlete, and now I could understand the pressure of preparing someone and building trust for the athlete to become their best self.”
Fencing is to Italy what hockey and basketball are to Canada. When Italians win Summer Olympic medals, you can count on finding them on the fencing medal podium. Schalm is becoming part of the Italian fencing fabric.
She has started “a little fencing project/club” in her community and, while there is no club in the neighbourhood, there is “a lot of interest” in what she is offering.
“For me, the best part of sports is when your mind and body work in co-ordination to accomplish something, whether it’s winning a match or breathing through the tough, emotional sensation of losing,” Schalm wrote.
“Helping people use the best parts of their mind to make their bodies work is the aspect of coaching that really gets me inspired.”
In the future, Schalm dreams of opening her own club with a permanent fencing space to coach the casual and aspiring champion fencers. She already has developed a coaching style that young fencers admire.
During a recent session, she rewarded a nine-year-old girl, who stuck with a difficult exercise. “I give one Kinder (Surprise) Egg to whoever surprises me with something good during fencing: behaviour, skills, mental fortitude, kindness, etc.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for over 47 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.