By Ben Fleming
“I just love fencing. The adrenaline rush. The competition. I’d be lost without it.”
These are some of Gemma’s last words as we conclude our interview, but they are perhaps the most poignant. Her passion and love for her sport is unwavering. She speaks to me following a “manic” few days at work and before she heads off to practise in a “dingy fencing hall” – her words, not mine. But I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have it any other way.
That, in large part, is what has made the last 16 months so weird for Gemma Collis-McCann. The two-time Paralympic wheelchair fencer has not stopped ever since she picked up the sport in 2011 whilst at Durham University. But for the first time in nine years, she has not competed in nearly 16 months due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Looking back now, it was just absolutely crazy. I remember the last competition in Hungary in February, Covid-19 was just starting to spread and some of the countries were starting to be badly affected but it hadn’t really touched us in the UK too badly at that point.
“At the time it was a case of the organisers putting out some hand gels with a sign of a bug emoji that said ‘virus killer’ on the front of it. To go from that to six weeks later being locked in was just crazy.”
Yet, only a week into the first national lockdown, it would get much worse, on a personal note, as the IOC announced that the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games would be postponed until 2021.
“Obviously, you are disappointed as an athlete because you have worked really hard over the last four years, but I felt like it was the right decision at the time. It didn’t feel right to even be trying to host a major Games with athletes from all over the world with everyone in the situation we were all in.”
With nothing but a target in her Manchester home and unable to see her parents, whose house she lives at when she trains in London, the first lockdown was an unusually quiet period for Gemma. A rare moment of buzz was seeing her local team Wycombe Wanderers secure promotion to the Championship for the first time.
By October however, the situation had eased sufficiently to allow her to train under an elite exemption. “My get out of jail free card,” as she explained to me.
“I could get out and do something I loved which almost no one could do. The first session seemed to go quite well and then I remember the second one I was like ‘I can’t hit a barn door with a banjo, what on earth is going on?’ It’s been a slow process to get back up to the standards I am happy with.”
But even the ability to train again came with new sacrifices. Elite fencing training takes place in London, meaning she has had to live with her parents since October and without her partner.
“My husband hasn’t been down here, so I have seen him only three times outdoors since October. It has been a weird and tough period, to be honest.”
Despite the return to training, there has still been no opportunity to compete since February 2020. And, in March, the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation announced the qualification window for the Tokyo Games would close due to the ongoing uncertainty caused by Covid-19. This means it is just a waiting game for Gemma to find out if she will qualify for the Games based on her performances before the pandemic.
“Hopefully, I’ve done enough. I am sat around whereabouts I think I need to be for a qualification spot, but I really would have liked to have absolutely guaranteed it. I’m certainly trying not to dwell on it too much as it would give you too many sleepless nights.”
There are tentative plans for a World Cup event in Poland in early July, but should that not go ahead, and Gemma secures qualification, the Olympics will be her first event in 19 months, a rather daunting prospect.
“Knowing that you could go into a major Games that you’ve been working five years for without any competition since February 2020 is just crazy to me. In this country, we don’t necessarily have the same depth, particularly on the women’s side, so some of the other countries will be better prepared as they have several top 10 fencers within their own countries with which they can train together.”
Despite all these obstacles to overcome, Gemma still enters the summer in positive spirits and with high ambitions, but also some much-needed perspective, should she get to compete in Tokyo.
“Obviously, I’d love to do better than my eighth-place finish last time. In the lead up to Rio 2016, I had won World Cup medals but now I have won a World Cup, I have beaten the world number one so I know, given my best day, I can medal in Tokyo.
“On the one hand that would be a huge aim of mine but equally I try to be realistic and know that there is no point putting too much pressure on these games under the circumstances.
“The most important thing is to enjoy it. I fence much better if I fence happy. If you see me singing along to the music and cracking jokes and having fun when I’m warming up, those are the days I fence best. If I’m tightly wound and a ball of stress, I just don’t fence well. I think my dad can spot it a mile off!”
Whilst this summer, in some ways, represents a free hit for Gemma, it should not detract from the progress she has made over the last five years. Outside of the sport, she has become the Vice-Chair of the International Wheelchair Fencing Athletes Council and, more recently, was chosen to form part of the new International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports Federation Wheelchair Fencing Gender Equality Commission.
And in competition, her gold and bronze at the 2018 Montreal World Cup, in the Epee and Foil respectively, shows she can compete with the very best, all the more impressive when you realise she hasn’t received any GB funding since 2012.
“It’s been a long, hard slog and I’ve relied on the goodwill and help of so many people. Without them, my family, the people in my Durham fencing club, I would not have gotten to the place I am now.
“I would be hopeful that within the next cycle I could secure some level of funding. But to be honest I’ll keep going regardless. As my dad says, once you’re ‘pot committed’ and you’ve reached a certain level, you make it work come hell or high water.”
To end the interview, I rewind the clock back to her years at Durham University, where she first picked up the sport of wheelchair fencing. It is clear as Gemma recounts memories, that the enormity of those formative years is not lost on her.
“It’s hard to really put into words but it’s funny how the choices you make have such a big impact. It wasn’t originally a university I wanted to go to because it was too far away from my parents. But I ended up choosing Durham and I could not have made a better choice for my life.
“I remember Laszlo Jakab, the fencing coach at Maiden Castle, came up to me and asked if I wanted to give fencing a try. I thought ‘who is this weird old man’ – it just seemed so random. Now, he is like a third grandad to me, he was witness at my
wedding. He and his wife are so special to me and always will be. They are family to me.”
With all these years, memories, and achievements in the sport, you’d be forgiven for thinking Gemma might be near the end of her career. In her mind, she is only just getting started.
“I am planning on going until at least the 2032 Games if my body can hold on that long. And I could always be persuaded to go on longer. I think this sport is stuck with me for a long while yet.”
Image: Gemma Collis-McCann