Cutting through the competition

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Fishers High School student Cat Bouwkamp to fence at 2012 Paralympics

In the world of Olympic sports, they say the only thing faster than a fencer’s blade is a bullet fired in shooting events.

Cat Bouwkamp, a Fishers High School student, is taking that kind of speed to the wheelchair fencing competition at the London Paralympic Games this summer.

The 16 year old is preparing to travel to the world’s most famous athletic competition. When her plane to Europe goes wheels up, she’ll be on her way to face opponents twice her age who train to slice and dice the competition like it’s a full-time job.

A new playing field

Bouwkamp sits in her wheelchair, fencing mask obscuring her face and sword at the ready.

Her and her opponent’s chairs are locked into place in what is referred to as “the strip.” The fencers have enough space between them to parry and strike. Stationary fencing subtracts the ability to run from an opponent, and in doing so, adds another level of difficulty.

Facing difficulty isn’t anything new for Bouwkamp. She originally chose to fence because after playing basketball, softball, tennis – every sport available that wasn’t football or hockey – it was a unique sport.

“I saw a class at the YMCA and I kind of just wanted to try it,” Bouwkamp said.

Picking up the sabre, Bouwkamp kept up with others in the beginning. But as the other athletes excelled, she couldn’t match their pace. She was born with fibular himemelia and a club foot, and as a result, has one leg stronger than the other. She couldn’t keep up with the other students at the IndySabre Club – the group she practices with. At that point, a referee recommended she enter the competitive realm of wheelchair fencing.

She said she expected the transition to wheelchair fencing to be bittersweet, but after being a part of it, she became close with an entire community of athletes, as opposed to a handful in another.

Cutting through the competition                                                             

After eight years of practice and five years on the competitive circuit, Bouwkamp racked up a record. She has 15 medals under her belt, 11 of which are gold. Her win in the foil competition at the Wheelchair Pan American Championships last year qualified her for this year’s games.

Bouwkamp (left) fences on a global stage. (Photo submitted by Alan Bouwkamp)

Bouwkamp said that the fencing community describes the sport as high-speed chess, combining strategy with lightning-fast movement.

“It’s kind of cheesy, but you have to have a mental toughness,” she said. “You have to be OK with physically beating your opponent.”

The focus and concentration that the sport takes are two of the biggest challenges on the road to success, according to Bouwkamp.

“When you’re fencing you’re not only fencing for yourself, you’re fencing for the other person,” she said. “You have to place your move and predict what they’re going to do.

“You have to have a large repertoire of skills, but you have to know when to use them.”

Global perspective in Indiana

Preparation for the London Games is in full swing. During the school year, Bouwkamp practices about three times a week. She takes time to do normal teenager stuff – worrying about getting a driver’s license and going to FHS every day as a National Honor Society student. But with summer here, she has about five practices every week.

Practices can last up to 40 minutes, but some of them focus on motivation since Bouwkamp’s coach, Val Kizik, won’t be in London to push her.

Bouwkamp will be on her own when she faces athletes from around the globe. Having already met those athletes, she has built contacts from around the world. And she knows how they feel about going up against her.

“The Russian team has always called me [in a European accent]‘their little sister,” she said.

Duels with stoic fencers might be a challenge, but Bouwkamp stills pushes to be the top wheelchair fencer.

“This is something she has done with support,” her father, Alan Bouwkamp, said, “but she’s done it on her own.”

He continued to say everything she’s done has been complemented by a good attitude.

“Nobody gave anything to her.”

A deal is a deal

Bouwkamp made huge strides in the wheelchair fencing community in the past five years, scooping up medals at various competitions. She even beat her dad, Alan, in one contest. Bouwkamp bet him that if she ever qualified for the Olympics she could get a tattoo. One gold medal at the Wheelchair Pan American Championships later, Bouwkamp sports a tattoo on her left ankle commemorating the milestone in her career.

Foil, Epee, Sabre – Know the difference

Bouwkamp competes in three different types of wheelchair fencing – foil, epee and sabre. Each weapon has a different strike zone and attack style. Both the foil and epee are used to poke the opponent. The sabre, Bouwkamp’s original weapon of choice, utilizes a slashing motion.

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