Jamaican junior fencers (from left) Armani Okolo, Shea Martin, Dylan Martin, Omari Okolo pose with their nation’s flag.
Jamaica’s fencing is poised to take off with a buoyant collaboration between the small French island of Guadeloupe and The University of the West Indies (The UWI).
The small French island of Guadeloupe was put on the map for fencing when Laura Flessel, in 1996, secured two Olympic medals in Atlanta. Since then, the island has continued to produce Olympic champions in the sport. Yannick Borel, Enzo Leforte and Anita Blaze are just a few of the names that inspire young fencers in Guadeloupe and around the world.
Guadeloupe’s success in fencing began with Coach Robert Gara, a Hungarian refugee who moved to France, married a Guadeloupean and eventually settled on the Department of France island in 1963.
In 1970, Gara convinced the mayor to invest some money in the sport. He was given a room in an old hospital along with some fencing equipment with the condition that he coach for free. In 1976, the Guadeloupean Fencing League was born, and the rest is history.
Jamaica is in that struggling phase of trying to develop a non-mainstream sport in the country. The Jamaica Fencing Federation was formed in 2010 by James McBean who was born in Jamaica but migrated to the United Sates at age five.
Following the launch of the federation, the focus was on immediately obtaining Jamaican representation for the sport on the regional and international scene. This was achieved through identification of talented Jamaicans who were living and training in North America and Europe.
On the home front, there has been fluctuating levels of interest and exposure to the sport. Today the Kingston Fencing Club, with coaches Kurt Schmick and Jonathan Matthews, has ensured that a presence is maintained in Jamaica.
In 2020, amid COVID-19 lockdowns, the Kingston Fencing Club and the Mona Academy of Sport in the Faculty of Sport at The UWI found one another. A training programme began on the campus on Sunday mornings with a very small number of athletes allowing for adherence to COVID-19 protocols.
Simultaneously, the Faculty of Sport was engaged in a collaborative relationship with the Resource Center for Sports Expertise and Performance in the Antilles Guyane (CREPS Antilles Guyane). The CREPS is a high-performance training facility which focuses on athlete development from primary school level through to completion of high school. No surprise that fencing is one of the areas on which there is focused attention.
The faculty appealed to CREPS for any help that could be provided for exposure of athletes and coaches to competition and training in Guadeloupe and they responded.
In 2021, Wolmerians Dylan Martin, Shea Martin and Coach Schmick had the opportunity to train at the facility in Guadeloupe for a few days followed by the two youngsters competing in their first-ever tournament. Being newcomers to the sport, the young athletes, who discovered the sport in 2020 when field hockey came to a halt, developed a rapid appreciation for the level of finesse, dedication and focus that was required to succeed.
They saw athletes their age rise early in the morning to engage in fitness training, followed by breakfast, attendance to classes, homework and rigorous fencing training in the afternoons. Six weeks later Shea was able to apply skills learnt in Guadeloupe as an opportunity emerged for a cadet foil fencer to compete at the Junior Pan American Fencing in Columbia.
This year CREPS once again hosted a Jamaican contingent at their facilities allowing them to enter the second year of tournament. The two Jamaica-based fencers were joined by the United Kingdom-based Armani and Omari Okolo, whose mother is Jamaican. Armani went on to secure a Jamaican win in the U15 Épée competition and third place in the U17 category.
For the local fencers, they were pleased that their placement had improved compared to last year; however, the major highlight of the tournament was being able to observe and meet with some of the most elite fencers on the circuit.
The partnership with Guadeloupe is just one of many relationships between France and Jamaica, and local fencers now look forward to the expansion of the relationship with Guadeloupe to aid with the development of Jamaican fencers and coaches.
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