skip navigation

En garde! Teen fencer readies for London

09/09/2011, 6:38am CDT

Cat Bouwkamp was just 9 when she was introduced to fencing at a YMCA in Indianapolis.

Not long afterward, she was dominating the Under-10 junior fencing circuit, earning medals at the United States Fencing Association Summer Nationals in 2006 and 2007. A couple of years later, leg and back problems prompted her to transition to wheelchair fencing. Now 15, she has become of the first Americans to earn a spot to compete at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

At the Wheelchair Pan American Championships last month in Sao Paolo, Brazil, Bouwkamp came away with a transformative performance. In what she described as the most challenging bout of her young career, Bouwkamp, took on nemesis Sylvie Morel of Canada in the Class A Foil finals. Clinging to a 14-12 lead, the U.S. fencer noticed an unexpected signal from the referee.

Morel had moved before the start of the round, so she received her third red card of the bout and a point penalty. With the point, Bouwkamp had won the finals and qualified to compete in the Paralympic Games next summer.

“It was kind of anti-climactic, but I’ll definitely take it,” Bouwkamp said. “After I won, I was just smiling because I knew that everything I worked for during the past three years had come true.

“I was going to London.”

Though Morel defeated Bouwkamp in their previous two bouts, the high school sophomore entered the finals with plenty of confidence. Bouwkamp cruised through the preliminary rounds with a 15-3 triumph over Suelen Rodolpho of Brazil in the quarterfinals, followed by a 15-2 victory over Brazil’s Monica Santos.

Against Morel, Bouwkamp heeded the advice of her instructor, Maestro Les Stawicki, and used her speed to her advantage. Bouwkamp raced out to an 11-4 lead before Morel clawed her way back into the bout.

“Heading into the match he told me to play the distance,” Bouwkamp said. “If I can wait, fake her out, fight her and make her fall short, I have a speed advantage.”

Bouwkamp, who lives in suburban Indianapolis, was born in 1996 with a club foot and was diagnosed with Fibular Hemimelia soon after. The condition caused Bouwkamp to develop a limb length deficiency in her right leg and scoliosis in her spine. The leg and back problems made it increasingly more difficult for Bouwkamp to compete against able-bodied competitors.

So in 2009, she began her transition to wheelchair fencing and started working with Stawicki. Today, Bouwkamp continues to be mentored by Val Kizik, her original coach, and Stawicki. From the start, Kizik knew Bouwkamp had the wherewithal to become a strong talent.

Bouwkamp had trouble lunging forward with the right side of her body but her coach developed strategies to help her overcome these obstacles. Kizik, an instructor at the Indy Sabre Fencing Club and an accomplished fencer himself, taught Bouwkamp to fence with her non-dominant left hand. Bouwkamp attained so much success fencing with her left side that Kizik didn’t even inform her that her right was the stronger hand until years later.

“She was just able to switch,” Kizik said. “She didn’t have much choice.”

In her short career, Bouwkamp has already recovered from three surgeries in attempts to correct the length discrepancy in her legs. She underwent her first surgery just after turning 9 months old. Bouwkamp also spent her 14th birthday in the hospital after undergoing her third operation. When she emerged, an expansive metal fixator was attached to her leg. Weeks later, Bouwkamp remarkably captured a World Cup event in Montreal with a bevy of screws, pins and rods protruding from her skin.

In Montreal, Bouwkamp competed with a coach’s jacket over her leg to conceal the fixator. The surgeries have also provided her with a toughness and fortitude that others her age may not have developed.

“I don’t see it as being a big deal because it’s just who I am,” Bouwkamp said. “All my days in the hospital made me who I am.”

Bouwkamp provided a glimpse of her potential in 2009 when she earned a bronze medal in the sabre at the International Wheelchair Athletics Association Wheelchair Fencing World Cup in Warsaw, Poland. Bouwkamp, then 13, had just started training in wheelchair fencing a month earlier.

“Nobody knew of her; she was not on the radar,” said Kizik of Bouwkamp’s breakthrough performance in Warsaw. “It was clear that she was promising.”

She followed it up with three medals at the North American Cup in Pittsburgh, including a gold in sabre. The following year at the North American Cup in Dallas, Bouwkamp again won three medals, this time capturing gold in sabre and foil.

For all the adjustments Bouwkamp has made in switching to wheelchair fencing, she has made a bigger one in learning foil and epee. As an able-bodied fencer, she excelled in sabre — a type of fencing that won’t be featured in the Paralympic Games. Sabre fencers use a slashing motion to attack their opponents whereas athletes in foil and epee use a thrusting weapon when going on the offensive.

Away from fencing, Bouwkamp has devoted an inordinate amount of time in helping others through community service efforts. She has volunteered for weeks at a time at an inner-city mission in Cincinnati to help disadvantaged children. Bouwkamp also has spent time at the mission near Christmas to spread the holiday cheer to the children.

“She just has this magnetism about her,” Kizik said. “People recognize it.”

Moments after capturing gold at the Wheelchair Pan American Championships, Bouwkamp received congratulatory texts from Olympic fencers Mariel Zagunis and Sada Jacobson. 

Over the past several years, Bouwkamp has become close with Zagunis, a gold medalist in sabre in the Athens and Beijing Olympic Games and Jacobson, the silver medalist in Beijing behind Zagunis. One of Bouwkamp’s favorite items on her trophy mantle is a picture she took with Zagunis and Jacobson in Warsaw.

“It’s good to have that friendship,” Kizik said. “I would love to see her add a medal in London.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Matt Rybaltowski is a freelance contributor for This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.


Tag(s): News  Catherine Bouwkamp