Canada is known for hockey, has been and always will be. But did you know that Canada has three of the top 10 fencers in the world, and is the only country with that distinction?
Eleanor Harvey is the top Canadian, winning a silver medal at the Grand Prix of fencing in Korea in May to improve her world ranking to No. 3.
In January, Harvey became the first Canadian to make a World Cup final in women’s foil, losing to No. 2-ranked Alice Volpi of Italy in a competition in Poland.
But it hasn’t been an easy journey. Before the pandemic, with Harvey struggling in competition and unhappy in her training, she says she was prepared to pack it in.
“Right before everything was shut down because of COVID, [the Canadian team] had qualified for the Olympics. That was my goal but after that, I wasn’t really finding much joy in the sport, it was much more of a blind commitment to fencing but I wasn’t feeling very happy doing it,” said Harvey, who was ranked No. 23 at the time.
So she made a change, uprooting from her hometown of Hamilton to move west to Calgary and train with Alex Martin, the national foil women’s head coach.
‘Fresh set of eyes’
“The turning point was my first lesson with coach Alex, I learned so much and I was able to see fencing with a fresh set of eyes,” said Harvey, 27.
Leading into this month’s world championship in Cairo July 15-23, Harvey has beaten the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked fencers in the world, as well as most of the top 10.
Harvey isn’t the only Canadian that has been successful in fencing this year.
Toronto’s Jessica Guo, 17, is ranked No. 7 and won the under-17 world title this year for the second straight time, the only Canadian to accomplish that. Both Guo and Kelleigh Ryan, ranked ninth in the world, have made it to a quarter-final in World Cup competition this year.
Ryan, from Ottawa, has been on the Canadian national fencing team for 14 years and in that span a Canadian women’s foilist has never won an individual gold medal at the Pan American championships and Canada has never won the team competition.
But in Paraguay in June, not only did Harvey win gold by beating world No. 2 and Tokyo Olympic champion Lee Kiefer of the U.S.,, but the Canadian women’s foil team also won gold beating the Americans, 45-3, in the final.
“Hearing our national anthem two days in a row was surreal,” Ryan said. “I think we were all in shock. Our team is so tight-knit, and we work so hard. I’m just thankful we got to share this moment together.”
Fencing might not draw the headlines or make the impact on Canadians like other sports but Martin says he’s not discouraged. He says the Canadian team is having the kind of season where people might actually want to watch.
“I do wish, and every fencer wishes, the sport was one everyone talked about, but I prefer to see it as an opportunity for us because now we have the momentum where in the past, there may not have been as much to talk about,” Martin said.
Championships streamed online
Growing up, Harvey says it was difficult at first discussing the sport of fencing with her friends. She said they would come and watch local tournaments and would be fascinated and ask all kinds of questions, Harvey said she would tell them it was nothing special, it was something she did every day and it wasn’t that interesting.
But Harvey changed as she got older, and she says when friends ask questions like why do fencers lean forward or backward, or have different styles of movement, “I get very excited about it and talk in more detail.”
So the question is this: how can the sport of fencing draw more attention, draw more spectators to its competitions and increase its visibility in Canada?
Martin says if you just want to watch fencing, the international federation is making an effort to have every World Cup competition shown on YouTube and that has opened doors for older people to go out and try fencing themselves and they found out how much fun the sport was.