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At the sharp end: time ticking for British Fencing

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Ollie Williams | 11:52 UK time, Monday, 18 July 2011

Britain's fencers are running out of time to prove they can perform when it matters. Now they will turn their training upside down in the hope it provides the answer.

This month's European Championships in Sheffield look certain to become the second major tournament in a row, following last winter's Worlds in Paris, in which a British squad arrived with high hopes of a medal and left without a bean.

One year from London 2012, the pattern is a worrying one for a sport without an Olympic medal since 1964.

New performance director Alex Newton has spent two months taking stock since her appointment, and is introducing a "fundamentally different" training regime from 1 August.

It is the Olympic equivalent of applying the defibrillator, in the hope that British medal prospects - which clearly exist but lie frustratingly dormant - come to life.

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Richard Kruse and Laurence Halsted do battle with Sheffield shoppers pre-Euros

"There's a lot of work to do," Newton tells me on the afternoon Britain's remaining medal hopes in Sheffield evaporate. "I had to get the Euros over to draw a line in the sand and drive home what we now need to do."

Newton can't go into detail about the new plans without giving away the family jewels, in the same way British Cycling would rather you didn't film inside their velodrome. But much of it is based around what she has seen other, more successful teams doing.

"I've spent a lot of my time here wandering, watching and looking at what teams are doing," she says. "I saw the Russian team nailing a warm-up with military precision, and another team doing some amazing sprint drills. It was impressive.

"We have to make sure whatever we do is appropriate for us. We can't immediately replicate other countries who have a different coaching structure and a better depth and quality of athlete. But we have to make our system as good as theirs."

British Fencing does have some talent to play with. Richard Kruse, aged 27, is a veteran of two Olympics and the best hope in a generation of ending a 50-year wait for another medal at the Games.

Behind Kruse is Laurence Halsted, slightly younger and almost as good. Beyond that things begin to thin a little, but Chrystall Nicoll in women's sabre and Jon Willis in men's epee will do more than make up the numbers next year, even if a medal is a long shot at best.

However, fencing is not track cycling, triathlon or swimming, all sports where Britain has medal chances coming out of its ears. Like a number of other sports, fencing enters a frantic final year of preparation for 2012 needing something to change for Olympic success to be a realistic hope.

Newton must persuade her top fencers to sign up to a new regime, ensure it gets the best out of them, and make some tough decisions around who gets the green light for 2012 and who is told theirs is an Olympic pipe dream.

"So far I haven't received a great deal of resistance. Today I went to the board of directors with my plans and got unanimous support," says Newton.

"Will there be resistance from the athletes? I'd call it more unease than resistance. Some athletes like what they're hearing and are absolutely behind me. Others have perhaps done things their own way and are wondering what this means for them.

"There are painful things that revolve around funding that people may not take as well. But it's about me convincing them that this is a bus they want to be on."

Newton diplomatically dodges direct criticism of her predecessors - former performance director Graham Watt left at the end of 2010 - but it's clear the training programme she inherited did not strike her as one capable of producing medal-winning athletes.

"There might be a one-off performance, but UK Sport are looking for performances that are the result of consistency," explains Newton, herself a former UK Sport employee.

"It would be disappointing if we don't bring back a medal next year but as long as we get to a point where our athletes are on a consistent upward trajectory, we're in a strong position to go to UK Sport and argue the case for funding post-2012.

"If we don't do that and don't win a medal, we're in trouble. If we deliver a medal and don't do that, we're still on dodgy ground."

Richard Kruse with Laurence Halsted

Kruse, left, consoles Halsted after Euro disappointment. Photo: Getty Images.

Newton's problems extend beyond training. The men's foil squad are the Premier League stars of British Fencing and those outside it can grumble about the attention, funding and occasional closed-shop nature it is perceived to generate.

Within that squad, the issue becomes the lack of a permanent and suitable training facility. The Lansdowne Club in central London, while a supportive base for Britain's stars, does not possess Olympic-length pistes. Kruse and others have spoken out about the urgent need for a new training venue.

"Why haven't we found an Olympic training venue for all the disciplines? That's a question I have asked," admits Newton. She believes this should have been done much earlier, and certainly should not be causing concern 12 months before a home Olympics.

However, building a new permanent facility is out of the question now. "A distraction," Newton believes. "Our time and energy is better spent on getting the athletes right.

"To build a national centre this close to the Games is to put icing on a cake we haven't baked yet. We need to do that at the beginning of an Olympic cycle, not a year out.

"However, do we need to get a venue in which people can train with full-size pistes? Absolutely. And we have made progress there."

Will there be a brand new building after London 2012, then? Possibly, we are told. In what amounts to something of a vicious circle, it may depend on Britain's performance at the Games.

"That is an issue," admits Newton. "I would hope that we would start to look now at what we need to be doing post-London. The aspiration is very much to build a national centre but we are not in a luxurious position.

"My immediate challenge is to put in place a programme that shows UK Sport we know how to consistently deliver medals. We've got a job to do to convince them of that."


  • Comment number 1.

    The other disgrace is that we did not enter the Men's Epee and Men's Sabre team events, sending only Jon Willis for the former and Alex O'Connell and James Honeybone for the latter. Not entering every event for a major tournament on home soil during an Olympic qualifying year has not gone down well with the general fencing community in Britain, and led to some confusion from foreign athletes. It gives a very bad impression, and robs our rising stars or outside favourites for 2012 medals the chance to gain qualification points and (as ever) invaluable experience of a major championship.

    Was there any mention from Alex Newton with regards to that choice of team selection?

    Regards, keep the faith.

  • Comment number 2.

    I volunteered at the Euros last week: some pictures here, including some of Laurence Halsted in action:
    The new performance director's words are very heartening. The UK elite fencers are pulling off seriously good results at World Cup and A-grade events, but seeing them choke at the Euros (while a fencer from totally unfancied Ireland marched past them into the last 16) was a much-needed reminder that a sense of entitlement and a string of results in Britain isn't much on which to build medal hopes.

  • Comment number 3.

    Lets hope that the knowledge and experience that Alex Newton brings from other sports can make a difference to the current set of "elite" athletes AND ALSO to those who aspire to become the elite.

  • Comment number 4.

    GB fencers, with the sole exception of James Honeybone, looked lack-lustre and down-beat. Some of our ladies looked over-weight and unfit, they appeared to lack the same level of physical conditioning as the competition. The warm-up and drills of the likes of the Hungarians and Russians put our all of our guys to shame. Our team looked tired. This may just be gossip but I heard talk that the men's foil team asked for 6 weeks off after Sheffield...WHAT???? with the world coming up on 8th-16th October??? No wonder they're not in winning form! Based on what I have seen this week...there's not a chance we'll win anything in London 2012.

  • Comment number 5.

    GB fencers will always be up against it. The lack of funding (both public and private) means it is impossible to compete with the pro's of France, Russia, Italy and Hungary in terms of organization and development.
    I think some of the performance goals are over optimistic. There seems to be constant talk of GB medals in any sport, but GB have only won 17 medals in almost 60 World Championships.
    It seems performance directors obsess over taking medals, when for GB fencing that is like a League Two football team saying they want Premiership football in four years. There is no focus on reaching the next achievable level, which should be getting qualifiers in every event and building participation.

  • Comment number 6.

    I don't think I've ever been more surprised or delighted than to discover that all the comments beneath a considered post on fencing are equally thoughtful and well-presented additions to the discussion.

    Mackem010 - I've heard this raised before but have to admit it wasn't something I asked Alex Newton in this interview. However, my understanding from previous discussions with others involved is: British Fencing now wants to pick its fencers purely on merit and only enter the ones it believes can do some damage, rather than filling every place available even if that means entering fencers who won't realistically put up much of a fight.

    There are pros and cons to that approach. I do have to say it's the approach currently favoured across the board in British sport. Badminton England, having similar performance issues, adopted it in their own recent shake-up. Where previously they filled every funding slot available to them, they now insist badminton players will get financial backing only once they have demonstrated they deserve it.

    However, there are very familiar arguments there around how to demonstrate you're good enough without the funding. Similarly, you might argue it's harder to progress as a fencer if you're kept back from major competitions because you're not considered good enough. We'll see how the change in strategy affects things in the next year or so. Post-Worlds, I'm told, is "the watershed moment".

    Plashing Vole - That's exactly it, it's this choking at the very top level that's so concerning. World Cup medals are a strong achievement but in a sport which has so few chances to make a splash, winning on home soil at an event like Euros - one of very few with a guaranteed media presence - is A Big Deal. The team know that and they know not coming close to winning anything is a big, big letdown.

    MikeyBoy - And it's a lot of other sports she's previously been involved with, too. You would think that the knowledge and connections must be there. But I personally reckon she's on the very brink of being too late with this raft of changes. It'll be interesting to see.

    Wishiwasalittlebittaller - You clearly saw the same warm-ups and drills Alex Newton did. I've not heard that same gossip but I will enquire.

    Tigermilkboy - Perhaps there is a comparative lack of funding if you bring France etc into the picture, but having just signed a £1m sponsorship deal and with a reasonable whack of UK Sport funding coming in, British Fencing's probably as well-funded as it's ever been and could ever hope to be (certainly without Olympic success backing it up).

    You have to have ambitious goals and, for a home Olympics with a fencer like Richard Kruse who does have a claim to a top-10 world ranking at full fitness, you have to aim for a medal. Britain's male foil fencers aren't League Two. Sticking to your analogy, they're more like Aston Villa. As a one-off event, the Olympics are more an FA Cup than a Premier League - and Aston Villa, even without the resources of the top clubs, have a shot at the FA Cup title.

    (Granted, Villa haven't won it since 1957. Perhaps not the perfect analogy although if nothing else, it closely matches the period since Britain won an Olympic fencing medal.)

  • Comment number 7.

    Have not really watched Fencing at the Olympics mainly because the BBC never showed it even on the red button, but as we have not won a medal for so long it is surely a bit of a longshot to get one in this sport despite some improvement.
    I agree that the press should not expect us to hover up medals in every sport it is not going to happen. I think you Mr Williams predicted 4/5 medals at the winter Olympics and we came back with 1 (it was a gold one which was good). Even the sports you mentioned track cycling we got our arses kicked by the French and Aussie at the last world champs and the world swimming championships it is going to be very hard to win medals.

  • Comment number 8.

    Hi Chris - I didn't "predict" GB would win five medals, I'm not a fortune teller. I said they had every reason to aim for five medals. Here's the article you're referring to. In the event, four of them buckled for various reasons and it was pretty disappointing stuff.

    With British Fencing it's a similar tale. At both Worlds and Europeans, the form and talent has been there for Britain to win something. At both, it hasn't happened.

    You're right to draw the parallel, which is that in both cases there has been a failure to maintain the momentum from smaller competitions into one which carries more meaning. It's up to Britain's Winter Olympians to sort that out for Sochi in 2014, and the fencers to sort it a tad quicker than that.

    You'll also be delighted to know that every fencing session will be available to watch live online (and on red button I believe, though not 100% sure). You won't miss a moment.

    The argument that it's a long time since Britain won a medal, so it's less likely GB will win one now, is a hard one to make. Gymnastics at Beijing 2008 is just one example, the first that comes to mind, of a British team winning an important medal in a sport where success has been hard to come by (80 years in that case without an Olympic medal), on the back of increased funding and improving performances. Both of which British Fencing has, but the performances at world and European level have ground to an unsatisfactory halt for the time being.

    The track cycling - "arses kicked" is one interpretation and, in fairness, not one I'd really disagree with. But it isn't how British Cycling see it. Whether or not those Worlds were quite that bad for GB was discussed here at the time.

  • Comment number 9.

    Good news on the fencing on the red button hopefully their will be shooting, weightlifting and wrestling as well.
    Aim or predict its the same thing really isn't it? You even put five medals two of them gold in bold print so I reader would not miss it.
    At the Olympics the medal table for me is not important in the main most sports the person is doing it for themselves first and their family perhaps second. I think "team GB" comes a long way behind.

  • Comment number 10.

    One thing i will say is that we have to also think beyond 2012. I know that is goal #1 right now, and funding is performance related, but there is some great work going into the British Fencing Academy right now. Ollie, you should come up to Nottingham in a couple of weeks and see the 2nd annual training camp taking place up there. It involves some great athletes who are going through training vastly different from their senior counterparts and include Phillip Marsh who you discussed in a previous article! 2012 is going to be a difficult build up however i think preperations for 2016/2020 should be more smooth!

  • Comment number 11.

    Hi Ollie, thank you for your response.

    I see what is meant be the intention to enter fencers that can 'do some damage' as you well put. The problem is that most of our best results in fencing have come largely out of the blue, with the exception of the later half of 2009/early half of 2010 when the Men's Foilists put together a string of impressive results- medal winning at the Euros, Grand Prixs and World Cups; or junior fencers reaching L16s at Senior level. But since then it's become too unpredictable, as you yourself have witnessed. The Havana trip a few weeks ago was almost an even greater disaster than the past week. The Havana results made me think it would a bad week for the MFT.
    Other results are still suprises, from Jon Willis winning Heidenheimer (2007) to recent Phil Marsh's World Championship victory- nobody saw those results coming.
    I guess the grievance at it's most basic level is "If you don't try, you don't know".

    Only one more sabreur needed to be enter with O'Connell (23 yrs old) and Honeybone (20 yrs old, and both massive prospects for the future), what harm could it have done? The Men's Sabre Team recently beat the USA, 2008 Olympic medallists. The US team was weakened, but the British team seized their chance, and any US team these days is strong.
    Not only did they beat them well, they also (I wasn't there, so apparently:) showed some great moves and courage against a typically vocal Italian team. What if they carried that form into the Europeans? We won't know.
    Men's Epee, I see the reasoning in what you have said/learnt from the informed. But again, what harm could have come from entering just two extra competitors? They are still fighting for Olympic qualification points in other competitions in farther away places like Buenos Airies, what is so different with this competition? If there was that little faith in them, they'd be dropped from funding asap. *
    It's a situation that does call for hard decisions, but at the moment British Fencing is taking a lot of flak from it's members on the subject. Obviously they can't keep everybody happy, but many of us are just shocked that we didn't even decide to have a go at the events we didn't enter a team into.

    *incidentally, an email was sent around the Olympic Pathway funded fencers saying that the money from that area was going to be cut along with the number of fencers on the Pathway programme. Which weapon teams this will affect the most I don't know. However, if the BFA are opting for an 'all egg

  • Comment number 12.

    'all eggs into one basket approach', then the Men's Foil Team proved this past week that such an approach is inherently flawed.

    Thanks for the coverage, Ollie. Keep up the work, and the faith! :)

    (laptop messed up sending that last one, sorry!)

  • Comment number 13.

    I'm shocked that the team, compared to other sports that is, has a unified training camp model rather than singular training and a team get together if you want (I mean how some athletes train together but others train in the US alone). Fencing is something I'd have loved to have a go at but couldn't get a break to get into it and now too old at 31 so good-luck guys.

  • Comment number 14.

    In reference to wishiwasalittlebittaller's comment I agree with what you say about the women's fencers. Although some were a little bit over weight; I don't feel calling them unfit is particularly fair. The work and dedication that the girls have put in is second to none. The thing that is holding these girls back is A) the lack of funding and B) The lack in depth of talent.

    In terms of conditioning and skill improvements; (I'm no expert) but I feel the girls need to be challenging themselves in training putting each other under pressure to perform. However this can only improve them to a level. I feel a few of the girls should be looking to train with more experienced, advanced fighters from other nations who are able to pass down both knowledge, and who can challenge them on the piste in training.

    A few of these girls are surprisingly close to winning things, they'll be there to compete come 2012, I promise you.

  • Comment number 15.

    Ollie, I don't really believe in the line: "British Fencing now wants to pick its fencers purely on merit and only enter the ones it believes can do some damage, rather than filling every place available even if that means entering fencers who won't realistically put up much of a fight.", as Mens Foil didnt perform as expected. Would other teams faired any worse? I don't think so. We should have used this experience looking to the medium and long term.

    "British Fencing now wants to pick its fencers purely on merit" - This is an absolute MUST for a fair and transparent sport. Time will tell if this comes to pass.

    "That is an issue," admits Newton. "I would hope that we would start to look now at what we need to be doing post-London. The aspiration is very much to build a national centre but we are not in a luxurious position."

    I think that there is much to commend a national centre, but who wants to bet that National = London?

  • Comment number 16.

    Fencing in other countries has been developed with an infrastructure; in the UK we have tried importing 2 or 3 coaches every 10 years for the last 30 years - great coaches who have done wonders, but to produce 1 champion requires 1000 properly trained candidates. I think that there are about 10 well trained fencers in the UK in each cohort of cadets for each weapon (say 50 every 2 years); at that rate it is 20 years to produce a single champion - provided that nothing unfortunate like injury gets in the way. Until there are 50 or more top class coaches in the UK there will be no change. There just aren't now and a number of the ones we have developed have left the sport due to the system they have worked within and the lack of support.

  • Comment number 17.


    Uruguay beat Peru in one semi final on Tuesday night but look at the BBC site and you wouldn't even know the tournament was taking place.

    If you want to know how Dumbarton got on in their friendly with Partick Thistle - no worries. Uruguay/Peru, from the continent that brought us Pele, Maradona, Alfredo de Stefano, Lionel Messi? Look elsewhere because you'll find nothing here!

    (Dumbarton beat Thistle 4-1)

  • Comment number 18.


    Were you at Sheffield? If you were and you spent as much time as a piste assistant as I did, you'd understand my comments about ladies team fitness. Red in the face, out of breath and pouring with sweat after 15 hits..where their opponents looked as if they'd only just warned up. Elite athletes in all sports should be at peak physical fitness to compete in major championships, and our team wasn't. Even our men, who looked in better physical shape than the ladies, looked exhausted after each bout. We're not talking about people who are part-timers holding down full-time jobs and fencing, all of those who went to Sheffield fence full-time and are funded to do so, that's why I felt it fair to comment on the fitness levels of the competitors.


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