By Charlie Pinkerton
Ottawa finally has a specialty fencing facility thanks to an old friendship, a Florida roller rink, and a failed funding bid.
The unlikely combo may sound like the making of a bad joke, but it’s what Paul ApSimon explained as being crucial to constructing the new basement-level gym at Saint Paul University.
ApSimon, Ottawa’s elder statesman of fencing, has coached the sport in the capital for decades, including spending a significant portion of those years training Olympians for and at the Games.
The coach has always managed to make-do teaching fencing at spaces like the RA Centre and TRYumph Gymnastics Academy, which he’s a founder of, but it hasn’t been since the 1990s that he can recall Ottawa having a facility akin to the renovated gym at the small Catholic university in Old Ottawa East.
Falling into place
The inception of the new fencing-specific site can be traced back to its predecessor located at the University of Ottawa, which was eventually demolished along with the building that housed it.
Back when it was open was when ApSimon got to know Michel Drapeau, who worked in facilities’ management at uOttawa.
Drapeau later left uOttawa to work in a similar role at Saint Paul University, which is how ApSimon came to learn the school was home to an unused gym that had potential as a fencing facility.
“At one point, (Drapeau) contacted me and said, ‘we might have an interesting project for you,” ApSimon said. “And so, we came to visit … and the idea was to try to … bring a little bit of a change of flavour to the area.”
Having locked up the space, ApSimon set out for grant funding to refurbish the gym. One of his ideas was to create a high-performance training location for Eastern Ontario, but ApSimon couldn’t secure the Ontario Fencing Association’s buy-in on that plan, he said.
The final major missing piece was found while ApSimon was coaching at last summer’s Olympics. In Tokyo — where the Games lacked much of the pomp typical of an Olympics held outside of a pandemic — ApSimon spent his spare hours scouring online for a suitable floor, which led him to an unlikely match: a roller-rink in Florida that was selling its court.
Thus, voila; While the floor wasn’t a perfect fit, ApSimon sold off unneeded sections and rounded out most of what else the facility was missing with equipment he’s collected over his years of coaching.
The renovated gym is now up and running and hosted its inaugural event on Nov. 28, which was the first large-scale event for beginner-level fencers held in Ottawa since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The new facility should be a “game changer” for fencing in Ottawa, ApSimon predicted.
“I think there’s good things to come out of Ottawa Fencing (ApSimon’s club) in the next few years because Saint Paul has been gracious enough to create this opportunity for us to have a place where we have a dedicated fencing (facility),” he said.
Ottawa Fencing will continue teaching beginners at TRYumph, but has moved its more advanced training programs to Saint Paul.
In the short time since the site’s renovation was completed, ApSimon says fencers have stopped in from as far away as Petawawa or Cornwall to check it out. It’s also hosted fencers ranging age six to 72, and it’s become a weekly training ground for high-level fencers from Gatineau, uOttawa and Carleton University to work together.
Another new draw is Benjamin Manano. Like ApSimon, Manano competed in fencing internationally and has coached for Canada’s national team — although Manano is a sabre specialist, unlike ApSimon, whose discipline is the foil.
On Dec. 18-19, Saint Paul University will be the host-site of its first competitive event, a qualifier for the 2022 Ontario Winter Games. Fencers born 2007-2009 will attempt to secure bids to the provincial Games hosted in Renfrew County on Feb. 24-27 and Mar. 3-6.
—With files from Dan Plouffe.
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