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The Olympic tipping point

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Ollie Williams | 20:30 UK time, Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Everyone who competes at an Olympic Games must have shared the same moment of realisation at some point in their career: "I can do this. I am good enough to reach the Olympics."

If you don't have that moment, you can't commit to it - and most sports demand years of commitment to stand the remotest chance of Olympic participation.

What is that moment like? How does it feel to realise you might have what it takes? When do you start sacrificing things to pursue that dream?

I've had the privilege of meeting one family in the same week that this moment struck their teenage son.

Philip Marsh

Marsh won a junior world title from a ranking of 140th

Philip Marsh, from Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, was a reasonably good junior fencer until he unexpectedly won the sport's under-20 World Championships days before beginning his GCSEs.

The 16-year-old had entered the competition, held in Jordan, ranked 140th in the world for the age group. Marsh was almost rock-bottom of the pile when the draw was made.

But, watched by his parents back in Wiltshire using simple score updates on the tournament website, Marsh threw his ranking out of the window on the way to the world title, defeating the defending champion in the process.

"I didn't have any pressure," Marsh told me. "I had no expectations and nobody else expected me to get anywhere. I relaxed more than I've ever done and enjoyed fencing more than ever before."

It's very hard to accidentally win a world title at any level, but I had to ask: given his ranking, did he think he'd fluked his way to it?

"Yeah! When I first did it, I couldn't believe what had happened and I don't think anyone else could either. I was looking back at it thinking that I must have had an easy fight, or maybe everyone I fenced had a bad day.

"But now [a week later] I'm beginning to realise actually they were all fencing quite well - so it must have been me fencing well, too. Maybe it was a fluke, but I feel like I could produce a result like that again in near future."

This is good, because world champions are expected to produce results and junior gold medallists are expected to work their way into the senior ranks. That's a scary prospect when, at the start of the day, your future plans extended no further than thoughts of a medical degree.

"Before, when people asked me where I wanted to go with fencing, I'd light-heartedly say I might go to Rio 2016 if I'm lucky," said Marsh.

"But now I've done this, 2016 doesn't seem as far away. Before, it seemed like something I could say and then forget about it; it wouldn't really happen. Now, if I work hard enough and get the right results, I really can get there. It's an opportunity for me to take.

"As fencers go, I didn't train that much. Now I've done this, our coach has got more training planned for me and everyone will be expecting me to train a lot harder.

"I still want to do medicine at university but it's going to be hard to balance that with fencing. Overall, medicine is more important to me than fencing. But, in the short term, fencing will take a more dominant role."

Philip's parents are Tim, an airline pilot, and Penny, whose days are spent steering their three children between school and sporting events. The two already go for days without seeing each other - Tim arriving home from a night flight as Penny bundles the kids into the car for a drive to Sheffield - so the sudden emergence of a world champion in the family requires careful consideration.

"We recognised he had a talent and that he was improving," says Tim, "but I never dreamed he'd reach this level this year.

"We'll have to think long and hard about how we take the next few years. At 140th in the world, it's difficult to justify devoting too much time to the sport. But with this, we'll have to think quite carefully."

Their son has had a remarkable five years, having dislocated his hip playing rugby for his local team at the age of 11. "They were talking about replacing his hip," remembers Tim. "And you think, 'replacing his hip? He's 11.'"

Even now, the hip is held together with metal plates (though Philip says he barely ever feels it). It isn't a traditional recipe for a budding Olympian, but his parents know Philip has now proved he has more chance than your average sporting child.

"It's going into the unknown - an exciting unknown," says Penny. "This is all so new to us. There's a lot of talking to do in the future but we're behind him and we'll support him in whatever he wants."

Tim adds: "And there's a difference between U-20s and the adult scene. A junior title is no guarantee at all. The Olympics is very much a goal, rather than 'he's going to make it'.

"When he was growing up, we didn't want to be pushy parents. You don't want to stitch your child up.

"Now, it's quite surreal. All we can do is support him as best we can."

Penny concludes: "Five years ago, when he dislocated his hip, we were in such a dark place. We've come a long way in such a short space of time."

How much further their son goes now depends on the choices he and they make. That is a daunting prospect: fencing, of all sports, won't pay any bills unless you are the very best of the best, so you have to be sure of yourself before committing. Medicine, by contrast, is a degree geared towards a healthy and regular income.

If you were Philip or a parent faced with the same situation in your sport of choice, how would you play it?


  • Comment number 1.

    Everyone is talking sense - medicine first, fencing as and when possible.

    Medicine will also help him understand his body better for fencing.

    Good luck to him.

  • Comment number 2.

    A sensible young man with talent and a supportive family... the perfect combination.

    A great story.

  • Comment number 3.

    I have to say that i disagree with the previous posts. There is nothing to stop this young man from pursuing a career in medicine at a later stage. When it comes to sport at the highest levels age is a mitigating circumstance.
    The trouble with a lot of our nations budding talents is the lack of belief in themselves to commit to what is a long road to achieving the highest standards.
    There are many youngsters who would jump at the opportunites this lad has opened up with his impressive display at the Under 20`s World Championships.
    My opinion is that he should spend the next couple of years giving himself the best chance to compete at the highest level and if at that stage he or the people around him doesn`t feel he has the ability then a career in medicine will always still be there, IF he really wants it.
    What is so wrong with the younger generation spending a couple of years chasing their dreams, before they commit themselves to a lifetime of a normal career-chasing existence?

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.

    There are many barriers and modern day distractions before an individual gets to this level of sporting success and development. Philip obviously has a good support network in place to get him this far but he will have to make more personal decisions now as will his parents as this is now more than just a dream.

    Education on your CV is a must but if you can demonstrate commitment and achievement in any field this is a big plus. I would say being a national or international sporting champion does just that particularly in the less glamorous sports.

    Good luck to Philip...

  • Comment number 6.

    Everyone is talking sense here except IblameRedRum.

    It is incredibly arrogant to assume that just because there is not a big interest in fencing in this country, there is none in the rest of the world. In some ways you are playing down Philips achievement, when really his result deserves more recognition when you take into account the status of fencing in this country compared to France, Italy, the USA, Russia, Germany and China.

    Great Britain alone has a lot more than 140 junior (under 20) fencers. No one could not guess at how many Junior fencers there are in the world.

  • Comment number 7.

    both sides of the story are equally valid, age is a mitigating circumstance in sport so from that point of view it would seem sensible to stick with Fencing then once you finish that pursue the medicine career. The flip side of this is also valid, do the medicinal degree, which in turn will allow you to understand your body better (as mentioned) as a result you will train better and more focused, making you a better fencer.

    Personally i would do fencing and concentrate on that until 2016, representing your country at an olympics is a once in a lifetime opportunity unless you are an elite athlete who does it multiple times. He has a good family behind him, shall be looking out for him in 2016 at Rio hopefully.

  • Comment number 8.

    It is very difficult dilemma faced by many athletes over many sports. Committing to a sport like fencing for the chance of a dream is very noble but it doesn't pay the bills. That is why the education vs sport dilemma is very strong.
    I have seen first hand how throwing your lot in to sport at 16 years old can be folly within a few years. My brother and several of my friends traded in school for football or rugby at 16 or 18 years old. Of eleven people who signed for pro-sports, none made it due to injury or not enough talent.
    My brother tried to restart his education at 19, but found it difficult to commit due to economic and social pressures. It is always much more difficult to take your GCSE's or A-Levels 3-4 years later.

    In Marsh's case, he would be better served going to University, where the facilities for training and a fencing club would be available. It is easy to say chase his dream and commit towards the Olympics, but who pays for his 4-5 years of training? I am sure his parents are supportive, but even then a point may be reached where Marsh has to take part-time, low paid jobs to get by.

  • Comment number 9.

    "Medicine will help him understand his body better for fencing"? The main part to understand is how not to get it hit! I suppose he would learn nutrition & recovery in medicine but surely it would be easier to get this advice from an expert than go through 6 years of study? Not knowing the lad I hesitate to advise which way to go but uni good for fencing? No - fencing training good for fencing.

  • Comment number 10.


    But I tried fencing at University through the clubs that are run. Not only were they affiliated with a local club, the coaching was good. A university like Loughborough is very pro-sports and an excellent teaching establishment.
    Similarly, Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College have excellent fencing clubs-which is probably where most of the British fencers in the last 50 years have come from.

  • Comment number 11.

    Surely a UK uni would take this lad on - I mean a good Uni would use him for a bit of PR and then he gets an education+chance to keep going with his sport.
    Better that then selling your soul to a big company like Nike - maybe do that in the future but for now it's win-win if what I've outlined does happen - I mean Mike Atherton had a productive uni career and was still playing a decent level of cricket for Cambs.


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