Louisville Man To Compete In Olympic Wheelchair Fencing

By Connie Leonard

(LOUISVILLE, June 24th, 2004, 3 p.m.) -- A local man will represent Louisville in Athens, Greece this September as he goes for the Olympic Gold in fencing. Getting to the games is tough for every athlete, but as WAVE 3's Connie Leonard reports, this competitor is all about overcoming obstacles.

As sporting competitions go, fencing is one of the oldest around. "It kind of faded from glory for awhile, then came back in," says 33-year-old Sean Shumate.

And this year, the quick and aggressive game of fencing finds its roots in Athens, the birthplace of the Olympics. "I guess if there was a time to make the Olympic team, it was now," Sean says.

Hard work has paid off for Sean. The Louisvillian is going to Greece, and he's come a long way to get there. Thirteen years ago, a car accident paralyzed Sean from the waist down. "I slid through an S-curve and went over a cliff," he says.

After the crash, Sean says he wanted to pursue sports, even in his wheelchair. "I tried basketball and other disabled sports," he says, "and I always felt like it was a disabled sport."

That changed when Sean discovered fencing a few years ago. Both his mind and body were put to the test in what's known as a physical game of chess. "You're sort of thinking above your opponent, you're two moves ahead of what you're actually doing at the time."

Another plus for Sean is that the rules for fencing in a wheelchair are nearly identical to normal fencing. In able-bodied fencing, the legs can be a target, but in disabled fencing it's only the chest, head and arms.

And while able-bodied fencers can jump back from the blade if they're not ready, wheelchair fencers can't move.

"They have to be ready immediately after the referee say 'Fence!'" says Leszck "Maestro" Stawicki, Sean's coach from the Louisville Fencing Center.

Sean says his friends at the center helped him make the April cut in Atlanta for the U.S. Para-Olympic team, and no one more so than Les, who has also led able-bodied fencers to the Olympics. "Everything that I've gotten, I've gotten from my coach and the people that I fence with and train me that were Olympians before I was."

With a dream nearly fulfilled, it is a proud time for both student and instructor. "If he will be in the top four, in the middle, I will be the happiest person in Louisville."

Sean says competing on this level is awe inspiring. "To be recognized as one of the premier wheelchair athletes in the United States is ... I kind of look in the mirror and say 'is that really you?' sometimes."

Sean is among five men and three women on the U.S. team competing in Athens September 20th through September 23rd. Sean says he is not worried about security threats in Greece -- he's just happy to be going.

Fencers do rely on sponsors to make their Olympic dreams come true. If you'd like to help Sean or other aspiring fencers, you can do so by calling the Louisville Fencing Center at 540-5004. Sean also wanted to thank the folks at the Mt. Holly Nursing Center for their help and support.

Online Reporter: Connie Leonard

Online Producer: Michael Dever