Event: women’s team foil
Local Club: Ottawa Fencing
By Martin Cleary
With apologies to Seinfeld TV-show character George Costanza, the Summer of 2020 was supposed to be the Summer of Kelleigh, the Summer of All Summers for the fervent, fencing foilist.
Ottawa’s Kelleigh Ryan was picturing herself walking into Makuhari Messe last July 30, opening her weapon bag, slipping into her stark protective apparel and mesh mask, and competing for Canada’s highly-ranked women’s foil team.
It would be the first and last Summer Olympic Games as a competitor for Ryan, who was living in Jersey City, New Jersey, and training at the prestigious Fencers Club in New York City at the time. That’s because she was 33 then and her future was calling out to her… rather loudly. The day after experiencing that exhilarating, five-ring experience, Ryan had planned to shift to another runway and head down the tunnel marked: Athlete Retirement.
That was the grand plan. But due to severe technical difficulties – the global and deadly COVID-19 coronavirus – her summer plan was pancaked by the pandemic.
But that unexpected change of plans has had its positives as well as its expected negatives.
The Canadian Olympic Committee stepped up on March 22, 2020, and announced it would not send a team to the Summer Games because of the pandemic. Ryan was stunned, but supported the action. Two days later, the International Olympic Committee halted its delay tactics about staging the Games in 2020 and postponed the Games until July 23 to August 8, 2021.
For the athletes’ sake, it was good the dates of the Games were reset. At least, the IOC didn’t ask the fencers to requalify for the Olympics and Ryan, along with the Canadian women’s foil team, kept its Americas regional berth for the Games.
But there were no competitions on the horizon. What about maintaining your drive, will power and motivation in a time of no competitions? What about personal, post-Olympic plans? What about having athletic facilities closed and training in a stay-at-home environment.
When the sports world – professional and amateur – started to crumble around her, the Olympic Games were just over four months away. Fencing training was going well. After a highly irregular season of ups and downs, there was plenty of positive momentum from that celebratory day, when Canada finished sixth in the World Cup women’s team foil standings and qualified for 2020 Tokyo.
But the moment the Absolute Fencing Gear Federation Internationale d’Escrime Grand Prix competition in Anaheim, California, was cancelled in mid-March, 2020, the fencing world was drawn into an unimaginable scary COVID-19 sphere.
“(The Canadian team) went to a training camp on March 9 and we were to compete (five days later) on the Saturday in Anaheim,” said Ryan, who is in her 15th season with the national squad. “I heard conventions and conferences (in the area) were being cancelled. I thought: ‘I guess the Olympic qualifying was more important.’”
Wishful thinking. In the wake of the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball suspending their regular-season or training camp schedules because of the spread of the coronavirus, the FIE followed suit March 12, 2020, announcing the postponement of competitions for the near future.
Ryan changed her flight plans and flew home with her husband and coach Alex Martin to Jersey City. After a week at home, they watched an increasing number of people test positive for the coronavirus in the New York City area. Stores were closing and the 137-year-old Fencers Club temporarily shut its doors March 16 to comply with state recommendations to limit the size of groups. Ryan and Martin decided they would be safer moving to Ottawa near her parents. So, they rented a car and escaped a serious COVID-19 epicentre for a less turbulent and troubled area.
Ryan and Martin split their 14-day, self-isolation period in a house owned by Paul ApSimon, a Canadian team coach, businessman and Ottawa school teacher, and a house in the Glebe neighbourhood near her parents.
Training, a vital part of her daily regime as much as eating and breathing, was challenging, but interesting.
“It has been an adjustment,” said Ryan, who moved to New York City with Martin (then her boyfriend) in 2013 and trained at Empire United Fencing before moving to Fencers Club three years ago. “I’ve done virtual training during my quarantine. When we drove from the United States, we had no symptoms. But (then we got) cabin fever.”
While following the directives of Ottawa Public Health officials to participate in physical distancing, washing your hands and not touching your face, Ryan had to balance that by maintaining her athletic fitness. When she wasn’t running through her neighbourhoods, she used water jugs as weights, pulled on resistance bands and surveyed her accommodations for the best floor plan for a makeshift, fencing workout piste.
“I feel a lot better and more motivated that my husband is one of my coaches. I’m kind of lucky to have a coach in quarantine,” said Ryan, who went through an Olympic-postponement-grieving period during her planned 10-day break after the Anaheim cancellation.
Ryan heard the news the COC would not send a team to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in a text from her teammates. Initially, she was fine with it because she still thought the Games would proceed.
“I didn’t feel a lot of emotion at the time. My teammates were upset and texted a lot. I kind of knew the Games would be postponed and wasn’t concerned. Canada had made a political move and I sensed the Olympics wouldn’t happen. I felt confident it would be fine,” she added. “I wasn’t surprised the next day the IOC postponed the Games.
“Wow, a change in plans. I appreciated having some clarity. I didn’t know if the Olympics would happen. It was hard to get a handle on. And I wasn’t sure how hard to train. I orient (my training) around my next competition. I wasn’t sure how to proceed.”
As the pandemic raged on, Ryan continued to train in Ottawa, Montreal and Calgary, and waited to hear about competitions and the next step(s) from ApSimon and the Canadian Fencing Federation.
At the same time, she was thankful the Olympic qualifying period was complete for her team. The ticket to the Summer Games remained valid and the wild ride to the team goal didn’t lose any of its full meaning.
Comprising Eleanor Harvey of Hamilton, Jessica Guo of Toronto, Alanna Goldie of Calgary and Ryan, the Canadian women’s foil team managed to climb to world No. 6 from No. 10 between 2017 and 2020. Throughout the 2019-20 World Cup season, the squad was hobbled by injuries or illness, which was unlike previous years.
When it came down to the last chance to qualify for a 2020 Olympic women’s team foil berth at the final World Cup in Kazan, Russia, Canada was forced to withdraw from the elimination matches.
While Harvey was ready to compete, after a broken wrist bone had healed, Guo and Goldie had suffered sprained ankles and Ryan was hit with a stomach bug. Withdrawn and worrisome, the Canadian team anxiously watched the team event unfold, knowing there was the distinct possibility the Olympic dream could blow up in their faces.
The critical quarter-final match was between the United States and Japan. The U.S., which had emerged as one of the world powerhouses over the past three seasons in women’s team foil with gold in 2018 and silvers in 2019 and 2017, had already qualified for the Olympics as one of the top-four teams in the world. But a win by Japan over the U.S. in the quarter-final and over Poland in the semi-final would burst Canada’s Olympic bubble.
“We did all the calculations and what everyone needed to rank for us to qualify for the Olympics,” explained Ryan, who attended the 2016 Rio Olympics solely as a training partner for Harvey. “It was really weird. It didn’t feel good to pull out of the last event. It felt anti-climatic. We knew it was out of our control.
“I was so nervous (watching the U.S.-Japan match). I didn’t walk over for the first 10 minutes. I sat near my bag and looked at the floor, asking Alanna for the score.”
Winning or losing the match wasn’t a high priority for the Americans. But head coach Buckie Leach motivated his team by asking his fencers to do it for Canada and get a second Americas team into the Olympics.
Late in the match, Japan moved ahead by two points and life became even more uneasy for the Canadian team. But American star Lee Kiefer came to the rescue, won her match and celebrated by quickly pulling off her mask, releasing a scream of a lifetime and pointing to the Canadian team.
That triggered an all-out Canadian celebration, after a 45-minute sweat session of sitting on pins and needles.
“When the Americans won, there were so many thoughts in my head. It was a relief,” Ryan said. “I ran to Alanna and we hugged and jumped up and down. Eleanor cried. I was so relieved, happy and excited.”
That one moment made it easier for Ryan to accept the disappointment of being left out of the two previous Olympics.
Canada wasn’t a top-nine nation in the world or even the best in the Americas for women’s team foil heading into the 2012 Olympic qualifying period and didn’t make the grade in Ryan’s first Games attempt.
Four years later, Canada was a top-eight nation and a serious threat. But it didn’t matter in terms of the Olympics. Women’s team foil wasn’t part of the 2016 Rio Olympics fencing schedule.
The Olympic fencing program has a rotation for men’s and women’s team events as only two of the three (foil, epee and sabre) are held at each Games. In 2016, women’s team foil was out.
Looking into the future a year ago, Ryan had many concerns: When will the pandemic end and life return to some state of normalcy? How long will it take to regain her fencing touch? Will I be ready for the Olympics? Will the Tokyo 2020 Olympics actually unfold in 2021?
Heavy questions, but Ryan had an answer.
“I calm my worrying with optimism and confidence in myself,” said the elder of the Canadian women’s foil team, who returned to international competition for a March 26, 2021 Grand Prix tournament in Doha, Qatar where she won five of her seven matches and placed 48th in individual foil.
Despite rumblings the majority of Japanese citizens don’t want the Games to be staged for health and safety reasons, volunteers are quitting and international spectators are banned, the IOC is determined to bring the Games safely to the world.
If so, this could finally be the Summer of Kelleigh for Kelleigh Ryan.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 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.