By City of Ottawa Sports Commissioner Mathieu Fleury
When Kelleigh Ryan picked up a fencing sword at age 10, she admits, it was initially meant to help her get out of continuing with karate – a sport she liked but didn’t feel any passion for.
She didn’t know then that those first steps would lead to her eventual career and a trip to the Olympics as a 34-year-old.
Ryan is one of three women representing Canada this summer at the Tokyo Olympics as part of the women’s foil team.
Women’s foil is a competitive fencing event which involves a specific type of sword. Points are awarded when a fencer contacts their opponent with the tip.
Her second trip to the Olympics, Tokyo, will be the first one the Ottawa-born Ryan will compete in – she went to Rio in 2016 as a support team member.
“The Olympics were always the goal,” Ryan said, who had been next in line for the London Olympics as well.
So after finally qualifying and making the team, the hit of a pandemic could have been devastating – but Ryan said, surprisingly, it wasn’t.
“The fact it was postponed – it gave me hope that it would still happen,” Ryan said.
She admitted, had the Olympics gone on as planned, she was thinking of retiring afterwards. This postponement, in turn, also postponed that thought – she calls it a bonus year.
“I think it has been good for my growth,” she said, adding that smaller training groups and more time in between tournaments have allowed her to focus on areas in her game she could strengthen. As she notes, after 24 years in the sport, she still says she could be better, do better and become a stronger fencer.
The pandemic also offered her another opportunity. It brought the Glebe resident and her husband home after a number of years based in New York City.
“It was something we had been thinking about for a while,” Ryan said. “I ended up training at the Ottawa Fencing Club and got to reconnect with all the fencers I used to train with. It was a nice feeling to have come full circle. Without the pandemic, it wouldn’t have happened.”
As for her game – it sounds like it is on point.
She said she’s been able to focus more with the extra time, and that it allowed her husband – Alex Martin, a fencing coach and a former fellow fencer from Calgary – the opportunity to hone in on helping her with her skills.
It also brought them both back to their families.
“We weren’t necessarily ready to leave life in the States, but overall it brought us closer to my parents and his family too,” she said.
The couple has settled down in Calgary – somewhere Ryan said she always wanted to live.
As for her game face – Ryan said she is ready for the Olympics – she said that although you can never anticipate an opponent’s move, the same goes for them. Since she was beating the boys in her class 24 years ago, the drive to compete, be better and win has remained strong.
And as for her fellow Olympic hopefuls in Ottawa, Ryan offers this advice: “At the end of the day, you need to focus on your journey, it will be different from everyone else’s, but it is supposed to be. It is your story. You put the work in. You focus on you.”