Elite Amateur Sport Fencing

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Retired foilist Kelleigh Ryan won her share of medals, learned many lessons from fencing

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By Martin Cleary

Ottawa’s Kelleigh Ryan was absent from the 2023 world fencing championships, which unfolded at the end of July in Milan, Italy.

One part of her wanted to be there because fencing has been a significant part of her accomplished life over the past two decades as an elite senior and junior foilist.

But another part of her didn’t want to be there because the thought of competing again in women’s individual and team foil competitions was a thing of the past for her. She is now a retired athlete in training.

So, she didn’t go worlds. Instead, she “followed the (Canadian) team as much as possible” on various social media platforms to see how her former teammates were progressing through the nine-day championships.

While the Canadian team didn’t achieve all its goals, she’s confident that, in time, the team will rebound. Seeing that the national squad is in a good place, she felt she could close the door gently on her athletic career.

“It does feel a bit weird,” Ryan reasoned in a phone interview this week about not representing Canada at what would have been her 13th world championships. “I miss being there and experiencing everything with everyone. But I don’t miss competing.”

It sounds like Ryan, 36, is making a successful transition to being a relaxed, retired athlete from being an intense, high-performance athlete. Although, “it was really hard initially,” admitted Ryan, who benefitted from the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Game Plan program for national-team athletes considering retirement.

“I made the right decision. I feel I’ve done everything,” she added, almost six months after her final international competition, a 63rd-place result at a World Cup meet in Cairo.

Today, Ryan has many irons in the fire and is excited about each one. After graduating with her master’s degree in kinesiology from the University of Calgary in June and serving internships with the NHL’s Calgary Flames and the Dinos’ U Sports basketball teams, she will work with the university’s rugby program this fall.

A certified personal trainer, Ryan also will keep her strong connection with her prime sport by working as a coach and administrator with the Epic Fencing Club in Calgary.

In her free time, she has returned to playing soccer at the recreational level, enjoying hiking with her friends and learning how to be a mountain biker.

Ryan could have followed her plan and walked off the fencing piste for the final time after her stellar showing at the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, which were postponed one year to 2021 and held under strict health and safety conditions because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But there were still boxes without check marks in them for Ryan.

Kelleigh Ryan at the Tokyo Olympics. File photo

She reached the quarterfinals of the Olympic individual women’s foil competition, defeating Japan’s Sera Azuma 12-11 in the round of 32 and the Russian Olympic Committee’s Adelina Zagidullina 15-9 in the round of 16. But in the quarterfinals, she lost to ROC’s Larisa Korobeynikova, the eventual bronze medallist, by a score of 15-11.

Ryan fenced in just one bout in the women’s team foil event in Tokyo before being substituted out, but she fully supported her teammates in their fifth-place result.

Ryan’s eighth-place individual finish at the Olympics earned her an automatic berth onto the Tableau (top 64 in the main draw) for World Cup meets in 2021-22, which meant she didn’t have to fence in the qualifying pool matches. She couldn’t pass on that opportunity as it was a first for her.

That gift of fencing only on the second day of competition allowed her to score her personal-best World Cup result on April 29, 2022, in Tauberbischofsheim, Germany. Ryan won her first two matches and reached the quarterfinals, where she lost 15-8 to France’s Anita Blaze and finished eighth.

Ryan stretched her career into the 2022-23 season and competed in three World Cup and one Grand Prix meets before coming to a full stop in Cairo.

“It was good. I struggled a bit,” Ryan said about her final season. “After Tokyo, I moved to Calgary and started my masters in kinesiology. We trained and the environment changed. I struggled to find my footing.”

Ryan’s international fencing career, which spanned 20 years, took her to 115 major competitions in 27 countries on five continents. From 2003-04, when she started as a junior, to 2022-23, when she retired as a senior, Ryan competed in 12 world championships, one Olympic Games, 67 World Cups and 35 Grand Prix events.

She also represented Canada in numerous international satellite meets and Pan American Zone championships, winning a combined two gold, three silver and three bronze individual medals. She also helped Canada win nine silver and one bronze medals in the team competition at the zone championships from 2008 to 2019, and played an instrumental role in Canada’s upset victory over USA on home soil at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games.

Read More: Fencer scores first-ever win over USA in Hollywood finish

For the past decade, Ryan was in the running for selection to Canada’s Olympic team, but she ended up being next in line for the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Games. In the days before the pandemic shut down the sports world in March 2020, Canada qualified for the Tokyo Olympics and Ryan finally earned her coveted berth on the team.

“It was a unique experience given the pandemic,” Ryan said about the many restrictions, which took away the enjoyment of celebrating a full Olympic experience. “I felt sadness. But I focused on what we could make of it. It made me appreciate the process more.

“It was an emotional struggle. Some days, I just wanted to hang out by myself. And when the competition ended, we had to leave the next day. But I made sure I appreciated as many moments as possible.”

Read More: The wait goes on – Ottawa-bred fencer was finally set to make her Olympic debut at age 33, but vows to push on after Tokyo Games postponement

On the day of the Olympic women’s individual foil competition, all three Canadian fencers – Eleanor Harvey, Jessica Guo and Ryan – not only competed at the same time, but also won their round-of-32 matches at essentially the same moment.

That scheduling issue stretched the coaching staff, but the athletes decided every time one of them won a point, they’d make a noise, which would serve as a support signal for their other two teammates.

Ryan’s match against Azuma was particularly challenging. At times, both fencers were untouchable as they each ran off a series of points. Ryan led at one point 11-5, but with three seconds left on the clock, her lead had dwindled to 12-11.

“With three seconds left, it was probably going to overtime,” Ryan said, recalling that tense moment. “But I said: ‘you can handle it.’ Somehow, I killed the final three seconds.”

Kelleigh Ryan. File photo

In the round of 16, Ryan held off ROC’s Zagidullina 15-9 and advanced to the quarterfinals, where she fell to ROC’s Korobeynikova in a tactical match.

“Mentally, I lost my sharpness,” Ryan said. “I didn’t expect to be in the top eight. But I was happy with it.”

That would have been a logical time to retire, but not for Ryan, who wanted to experience the life of a fencer with a special perk of automatically having her name put on the Tableau for each competition in 2021-22.

When teammate Alanna Goldie retired in 2022, she felt she needed to stay for part of the 2022-23 season to support the new national foil team.

“The plan was to retire after Tokyo, but I was ranked in the top 15 and it was an opportunity to skip the first day of competition,” she explained. “I wanted to try that one.

“It also was important after Tokyo that the team was set up. Alanna retired in 2022 and I didn’t feel if I left that someone would set up and take my place. But the four girls on the team are really keen, motivated and talented to step up in my place. I didn’t want to leave until the team was ready.”

During the past two decades, Ryan has learned the ins and outs of fencing and found success. But she also left competitive fencing having learned many lessons for her future.

“I learned a lot about myself and trusting myself, dealing with stressful situations, controlling only what you can control, dealing with difficulties with grace and appreciating how important it is to take care of your body,” she said.

“Because of fencing I loved the training and feeling good about myself.”

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 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 High Achievers “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 martincleary51@gmail.com and on Twitter @martincleary.

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