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British Fencing's summer of upheaval

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Ollie Williams | 10:14 UK time, Thursday, 6 October 2011

Britain's fencers haven't known anything like it. In the past two months, their training has been revolutionised - and doubled.

"I've never trained this hard in my whole life," says Richard Kruse, Britain's best bet for a medal at London 2012, as he takes a break during a week of preparation for next week's World Championships in Sicily.

"By the time the World Championships come, I'll either be dead or a gold medallist."

British Fencing would prefer the latter. A medal of any colour at senior world level has been beyond Britain since the 1960s.

In May this year the governing body hired a new performance director, Alex Newton, to put things right.

Newton wasted no time making resounding changes: tougher training, more sport science, a new base at Lee Valley in north London, and a new selection policy for major events.

"I'm showing the results in training. The scores are good," says Kruse. "We've beaten the Japanese three times recently and those guys are world-class. They came third at the last World Championships [where Britain finished nowhere near the medals] so, if we can do that, then the podium is in sight this year."

Richard Kruse

Richard Kruse is Britain's highest-ranked fencer. Photo: Getty Images

Kruse's foil fencing team-mate Laurence Halsted agrees.

"We can see the benefits already," says Halsted. "Now I'm fitter and stronger: my legs are more powerful, so I feel I can be a lot more agile and fight with a real tenacity that I didn't used to have.

"Having had two championships go by without medals - the Worlds and this year's Euros - it would be amazing to have this hard work pay off. I want to have something to celebrate, not another devastating disappointment."

And yet devastating disappointment is exactly what a different group of fencers felt, watching these changes unfold.

One of Newton's least popular decisions, albeit one taken at the head of a selection committee, was to omit epee fencer Jon Willis from the team for the World Championships. Willis and Kruse are the only British fencers in the last two decades to have won major senior events.

Newton says: "The issue is what real, top-class performance looks like. Is being number one in Britain good enough? Will it win you an Olympic medal?"

Put more bluntly, the new policy meant if you can't challenge for medals on the world stage or are not on an upward trajectory towards that point, don't expect to be selected.

Willis may have won a major event, but it was in 2007 and he has done little since. His backers argue epee is an unpredictable sport and he always has a chance of winning on the day, plus he hasn't had the backing he should. Others say his continued selection takes up space and money that fencers with a brighter future could better use.

However, following his omission, emails began to reach BBC Sport from young fencers, their friends and parents. All demanded anonymity.

One parent said: "My child feels completely demoralised, ignored and let down by British Fencing."

A top young British fencer wrote: "It is a little demoralising to see senior fencers working their bums off this Olympic year, only to be denied the opportunity to compete.

"It sends the message that if I work hard, get to the top of the rankings and get decent foreign results, there's still no guarantee I would be selected."

In response, Newton holds up British Cycling as the example to follow.

"The cycling team made some pretty difficult high-performance decisions about which athletes they did and didn't send to events, very early on, in 1997 and 1998.

"The only reason we are being funded now is because London is hosting the Games. What we have to do with this opportunity is say to [funding body] UK Sport, 'We can deliver medals for you.'

"The clock is counting down fast to 2012 and I can see what we need to do, but we've got to do it at breakneck speed.

"You have to try to take people along with you but that's a challenge in a sport with 10,000 members."

Newton's "no-compromise" stance on selection is a common one, shared by UK Sport and a host of other sports.

But the problem is communication with the wider sport. If the same policy leads younger fencers to feel demoralised and overlooked at a critical stage in their careers, that could be dangerous.

After all this, Willis is now preparing to fight at the World Championships. He was reselected to the team last month following a successful appeal.

"We didn't have to pick him," insists Newton. "There was no defeat, or mistake. The appeals panel sent it back to us and we reconsidered.

"I'm absolutely fine with Jon going to the Worlds. I know people think I'm not."

Next week's World Championships will be the first major test of Newton's fencing philosophy, having barely taken her post by the time of July's Euros.

If Britain's fencers bring back a medal from Sicily, it will go a long way to justifying this summer's upheaval. In several years, it may well fade to a distant memory.

The best senior fencers are clearly already reaping the rewards. For now, young fencers wait to be shown that the new programme creates success rather than limiting opportunity.


  • Comment number 1.

    To be honest Ollie, it's as much about the decisions of which fencers to fund as it is about WCh selection. Have a look at the proportions of funded fencers in each weapon and their results in the last 12-18 months. 1 epeeist is funded (and not the #1 ranked fencer at that) and 11 men's foilists are funded, plus another 5 WF.

    60% or so of fencers in the UK are epeeists and let's not forget, have the world junior champion in Phil Marsh.

    BF's policy is to send representatives in all weapons to the Olympic Zonal Qualifiers if we don't already have the full quota in that weapon qualified by rights. At the moment, whoever gets sent for ME will not have had funding support from BF, whereas 7 of those 11 men's foilists are guaranteed not to go and will have been funded in the interim.

  • Comment number 2.

    I am little confused...
    Can anyone tell me who is Alex Netwon? Ie her background etc. to become the performance director...
    Her actually track record in other sports that she had involved in? &
    Finally her experience in Fencing?

  • Comment number 3.

    Would also like to point out the Jon has also won a world cup silver medal in 2009, his second world cup gold in 2010 and 2 x L8's that year giving him a world ranking of 21st and then the Bronze in the White Bear 2011 (a German ranking event with 250 fencers from 28 Nations taking part).

  • Comment number 4.

    This so called downward trajectory is a myth. Jon's world ranking was consitently rising slowly until injury earlier this year. The PM was fully aware of this, but decided not to take it into account. Is Jon a GOOD bet for a medal in Catania? Probably not. Is he an outside bet? I would say yes. The Germans seem to think so. I understand that the German fencing magazine features him as a medal hope for GBR.

    I am delighted that the BBC got emails from young fencers, Jon has been an inspiration to the National Academy fencers during the last 2 summer weeks. Whilst that in and of itself is not reason to take him to the Worlds, it was self defeating to demoralise young fencers in that way.

  • Comment number 5.

    It is concerning that Alex Newton is clearly unaware of Jon's successes over recent years when she is making decisions about our medal hopefuls for 2012.

    It is demoralising to see such a lack of support, both financially and emotionally, from British Fencing when Jon has made such a massive commitment to the sport and had some great successes.

    Surely British Fencing should be encouraging our top epeeist to compete in the World Championships...

  • Comment number 6.

    I reckon when Alex Newton failed with British Fencing, she could apply for the England Football team manager post. :p

  • Comment number 7.

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


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