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From the Riding Stable to the Fencing Strip, Ellen Geddes Follows her Paralympic Dream

05/22/2019, 5:30am CDT
By Nicole Jomantas

Geddes during a pre-World Cup training Camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Geddes (right) fencing teammate Shelby Jensen in the gold medal final at the 2019 Wheelchair Nationals. Photo Credit: Ginny Boydston.

Ellen Geddes didn’t dream of becoming an Olympic fencer as a child – or any kind of fencer really.

Admittedly, one of Team USA’s top hopefuls for the 2020 Paralympic Games barely knew what the sport was when she was a kid in Aiken, S.C.

Instead, Geddes grew up as an equestrian, competing in the sport since she was 10 years old where she began first in the eventing discipline (something she likens to “horse triathlon”) and later in dressage (as she calls it “kind of like floor exercise in gymnastics, but with a horse.”)

Now a horse breeder, Geddes went from competing to working with an international equestrian, traveling to elite events and was scheduled to go to Germany in 2011 when her world changed in an instant shortly before her 23rd birthday.

“I was in a car accident driving to a friend’s house and my truck flipped end over end … the roof crushed and I actually came out of my seatbelt and went through the windshield,” she said. “I did a complete transection of my spine at T12.”

Paralyzed after the accident and in a wheelchair, Geddes remains grateful that her injuries weren’t more severe.

“For how bad that accident was, surprisingly I broke no other bones. Surprisingly I did not have a head trauma appearance on any kind of scan that they did. No idea how I managed to do all of that,” she said.

It was while rehabbing at the Shepherd Center for Spinal Cord & Brain Injury Rehabilitation in Atlanta that Geddes saw fencing in person for the first time – in the form of parafencing where she came across a practice at a program where several National Team members trained.

“One Saturday I was going down into their gym for extra training and I happened to see the Shepherd Fencing Team practicing and their captain was there and he asked me if I thought it would be fun to stab people and I said ‘Of course, yes, that sounded like fun,’” Geddes said of her first meeting with Dennis Aspy (Woodstock, Ga.) who was training for the 2011 Wheelchair World Championships. “I didn’t even really know it existed before I got injured. I was aware that it was a thing, but I’d never watched a competition or knew anyone who did it.”

Although equestrian is contested at the Paralympic Games as well, Geddes said she chose to pursue fencing after struggling with the logistics of a transition to riding again after the accident.

“I thought about trying to continue to ride after I got hurt and I put some effort into it, but it was kind of a multi-human production and an organizational nightmare to get it done. Then the horse that I had been using got injured and you have to have kind of a really special horse to do that kind of thing so it became ‘fencing it is,’” Geddes laughed.

Just over a year after seeing fencing for the first time, Geddes entered her first North American Cup, winning bronze in both epee and foil at the 2012 December NAC and fenced at her first World Cup in May of 2013. By September of 2013, Geddes was competing at her first Wheelchair World Championships.

She has since discovered that some of what she learned as an equestrian translates to the fencing strip and some things definitely do not.

“A lot of the skills and protective measures for stress that I picked up from the horses like really don’t help with the fencing, so my inclination when I get overly anxious and stressed is to really slow down and be as absolutely calm as possible because that was my job was to make sure the horse underneath me didn’t explode, but you can’t fence well when you’re still, so I’ve had to work at changing that,” Geddes laughed. “But I have been competing in sport since I was 10 and in high level sport since I was 15, so the ability to go to a competition and assess my mental state and assess what I needed to do to stay focused is probably better than people who haven’t been competing as long as I have.”

Supportive coaches and teammates helped Geddes make the transition to a new sport after spending most of her life in the equestrian ring.

“I think I had a lot of people being particularly supportive in the beginning when I was learning baby beginner basics and saying that I could do this and that I would be successful at this and that I had skill for it and would be able to do it,” Geddes said.

She won bronze at the Montreal World Cup in 2014 and was aiming to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games when her disability category, Category B (the more severely disabled category in Paralympic classification), was removed from the schedule at the final Paralympic qualifier in May of 2016.

Heartbroken, Geddes pursued her only other option at that point – fencing in a higher disability category (Category A) and needing a gold medal to take the slot. Instead, she finished in the top eight in both foil and epee.

Despite her frustration, Geddes returned to competition in 2016 after cheering on her teammates from home and made it her goal to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.

The qualification process this time is an 18-month endeavor that involves tournaments on three continents and Geddes has established herself as one of Team USA’s best prospects for the Games, earning three top-eight finishes in her first three qualifying events.

At the Kyoto World Cup in Japan in December, Geddes placed seventh in epee and foil after earning a pair of 16s at the first qualifier in Tbilisi, Georgia in November.

“I came out and got 16s in both events in Georgia and I was like ‘ok, I’m on track to qualify’ and then I got two top eights in Kyoto and … I was like ‘wow, maybe I can do really well,’” Geddes said. “I was two touches away from a bronze medal in Kyoto and I made mistakes in that bout that I shouldn’t have made. I think if I continue to fence and train well and stay healthy that I can medal at World Cups.”

She followed with a third top-eight – this one in epee – at the Sharjah World Cup in February.

At 30 years old, Geddes now returns this week to Sao Paulo, Brazil – the site of the 2016 Zonals qualifier – where she hopes to earn a position on the podium and bolster her position in the Paralympic Qualification Rankings. Geddes will fence in the individual Category B epee event on Wednesday and foil on Thursday.

“Qualification has been exciting and stressful, but worth the work I put into it. Pressure is a privilege,” Geddes reflected as she thought about what it would be like to compete at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. “It would be important. I feel like I need to do it. It feels necessary.”  

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