by WES FERGUSON
Gary van der Wege, 56, shuffles through his home in Kyle, his right leg one inch shorter than it was before the motorcycle wreck. Nearly two decades have passed since the accident and the year-long rehabilitation.
Despite his impaired mobility and advancing age, van der Wege remains an elite athlete. He competes on an international stage in the ancient sport of fencing, which grew out of the sword duels of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods.
A wheelchair fencer and member of the U.S. Paralympic Team, he will travel to London in September for the 2012 Paralympic Games. In the Paralympic version of the sport, two competitors sit across from each other as they thrust and parry with one of three swords – the foil, the sabre, or van der Wege’s current weapon of choice, the epee.
“Wheelchair fencing is actually faster and more intense than able-bodied fencing because you can’t get away from your opponent,” said van der Wege, who finished 15th at the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, in 2004. “The in-fighting makes it pretty exciting.”
Van der Wege began fencing seriously after he moved to Austin in the 1970s but thought he would never compete again after his wreck. Doctors first thought they would have to amputate, but they were able to use muscles from his stomach to replace ones he had lost in his right leg. He lost the ability to flex his ankle, though.
“Even though I was on crutches I started giving fencing lessons,” van der Wege said.
He also became a referee. In 2000, the U.S. team’s head coach, Les Stawicki saw van der Wege refereeing a national able-bodied event and asked him to try out for the Paralympic squad.
“He fenced with able bodies like regular fencing,” Stawicki recalled. “I said, ‘You don’t have a big chance because footwork is a very significant part of fencing. If you just sit in the chair you will be absolutely different feeling about what you can achieve.’”
Van der Wege was surprised.
“I thought you had to be permanently in a chair, and that’s not the case,” he said. “At first I thought it’s not fair for everybody else. It wouldn’t be right for me to go beat up a poor cripple. The first competition, I just got my butt kicked. It was a big eye-opener. It took me about a year to figure it out.”
After competing nationally and internationally for several years he retired following the Athens games. Too much wear and tear. He remained involved in the sport through the San Antonio Fencing Center, which has grown from about a dozen fencers when he took over operations in 2006 to more than 60 today, and he has been working to create a certification program for coaches of wheelchair fencing.
He came out of retirement about a year ago when he realized he could still hang with the other elite wheelchair fencers in the United States, which total about 15 people, he said.
“I think I can probably go out and still be competitive, even though I’m way over the hill physically,” he said. “I’m nowhere near as fast as I was in 2004.”
To help van der Wege with his travel expenses, a “Road to London” benefit has been scheduled for 6 p.m. March 30 at the Kyle United Methodist Church. He said he’s hoping to raise $4,000 to $5,000.
Van der Wege believes he can challenge for a medal if he finds his “zone” on the day of competition.
“It’s going to be pretty difficult. The competition has gotten much, much tougher,” he said. “On the plus side, I don’t have to worry about a lot of expectations. I’m looking to be the spoiler.”
Stawicki, who founded the nation’s Paralympic fencing program in 1995, said van der Wege has benefited from his prior experience as an able-bodied fencer.
“Physically he is very strong,” he said. “His technique is huge.”
Though talking about results is very dangerous, according to Stawicki, the coach said he is cautiously optimistic that van der Wege and his teammates will fare well in London.
“We are very proud of him because he deserves this,” Stawicki said. “His relation to fencing is very serious. He helped a lot with creating wheelchair fencing.”
FOIL: A thrusting weapon that targets the torso, including the back, but not the arms. Touches are scored only with the tip; hits with the side of the blade do not count.
SABRE: A cutting and thrusting weapon that targets the entire body above the waist, excluding the off hand.
EPEE (pron. eh-PAY): A heavier thrusting weapon that targets the entire body. All hits must be with the tip of the weapon, not the sides of the blade.
If you go
What: “Road to London” benefit for Paralympian Gary van der Wege
When: 6–9 p.m. Friday, March 30
Where: Kyle United Methodist Church’s Family Life Center, 408 W. Lockhart St.
Events: Dinner, silent auction, live music and fencing demonstration
Suggested donation: $7