British Fencing hosted four days of superb fencing in the Welsh capital.
On a chilly mid-January weekend in 2024, British Fencing hosted a Wheelchair Fencing World Cup on behalf of World Abilitysport, the international governing body, at the Sport Wales National Centre in Cardiff, Wales.
It was the first senior international World Cup fencing event in Great Britain for a decade, and the first ever wheelchair fencing World Cup in Wales.
Officially announced back in May 2023, incredibly, it was pulled together in only nine months. It was always a massive ask, but in the end, Cardiff 2024 became a triumph for fencing, para-sport and the power of partnerships.
Thanks to the support of UK Sport, the National Lottery, Sport Wales, Welsh Government along with Disability Sport Wales and Welsh Fencing, Cardiff would see over 180 athletes from 30 countries come together for four days of intense competition at the very highest level.
As well as the partnerships, the event was supported by over 80 volunteers who assisted in everything from piste-side work to video, as well as RMA Sport and Leon Paul providing wheelchair repair and new kit as required.
Extra efforts were made to ensure the venue was fully accessible from several entrances, including building a temporary wheelchair ramp into the main arena from the front of the venue. Other innovations included a video released to support spectators of all needs and let visitors know exactly what to expect from the experience.
Cardiff 2024 welcomed a huge number of guests including senior representatives from the Welsh Government including Dawn Bowden MS, as well as UK Sport CEO Sally Munday and Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson among many other important visitors from the world of sport in Wales and the rest of Britain. It also saw visits from two separate BBC crews and many other local and national press.
The entire competition was broadcast on the World Abilitysport YouTube channel with the broadcasting handled by sports specialists QTV filming two show pistes of the 22 in action. A total of 38 referees were needed to manage the 15 competitions over four long days of action in the main arena.
It was a Herculean effort to get ready, but the stage was set for something very special.
The first day of competition saw women’s foil and men’s sabre in both A & B categories. China are the dominant nation in wheelchair fencing, having topped the medal table at the Paralympics for the last four Games, part of a huge state-funded effort behind para-sport. They sent a full-strength team to Cardiff including multiple Paralympic champions; the question became who could – and would – challenge them.
Women’s foil A is one category very much dominated by China at present and they swept the podium with Gu Haiyan winning gold; it would not be the last medal she would wear this week. GBR’s Emily Holder made a brave showing, but was confined to the poules after narrowly losing all of her matches.
In women’s foil B Justine Moore finished 21st after taking a brace of victories in her poule before going out to China’s Lanzhu Ao in the L32. Men’s sabre saw Britain’s Rashid Shah and Dimitri Coutya in action, with Shah finishing in 13th place and Coutya in 6th after matches on the show pistes.
Sabre is not Coutya’s favourite weapon, and both he and Shah fell to Feng Yanke of China, the Paralympic and World Champion. “Even though I lost, the feeling of giving it my all, knowing it was a tough opponent, dampens the pain of losing.” said Shah. “But to be here and competing in front of a home crowd is something unique.”
Piers Gilliver finished with a bronze in sabre A after a 15-13 semifinal tussle with Andrii Demchuk of Ukraine, who went on to win gold.
Making their debuts on the international stage, Harry Patient and James Peebles joined Oliver Lam-Watson and James Burke in the poule stages; Peebles was unfortunate to be eliminated after failing to secure a victory, but Patient progressed to the L64 where he ran afoul of India’s Rakhal Sethy; Burke and Lam-Watson were both promoted to the L32 by dint of their strong poule results where they contended with Lemoine of France and Zhong of China respectively. Both gentlemen were eliminated after tough bouts – Lam-Watson enjoying himself vocally in his non-dominant weapon and Burke showing strong improvements in only his second international event.
The second day of competition saw men’s epee and women’s sabre fought out in both A and B categories, and it was a golden one for Great Britain, as Piers Gilliver and Dimitri Coutya took golds in epee A&B respectively.
Gilliver was the first to strike, beating China’s Sun Gang 15-12 in a highly entertaining and technical final. “Me and Sun have been rivals for many years,” Gilliver said.
“He beat me in Rio and then I beat him in the semi-finals in Tokyo. We always seem to find each other in the touch matches!”
“It really means so much to compete in the UK. The biggest thing for me is my friends and family have never seen me compete, some have and some haven’t. Here in Cardiff everyone’s been able to come and watch and support. It’s great to show them what I do.”
Burke and Peebles also returned to the piste in epee A where the tables were reversed from the sabre event; Burke was eliminated after the poules, while Peebles went on to secure his spot in the L64 where he went out to Schrader of Germany, showing maturity and growth in defeat. In epee B, newcomer Matt Clement narrowly missed out on promotion from the poules, coming within one hit of a crucial victory against American opposition, but proved himself a crowd favourite with excellent spirit throughout the event.
Not long afterwards, Dimitri Coutya then made it an unprecedented two British gold medals on one day, by beating Qin Benjun of China 15-7, in a dominant performance. After several pauses in the action, the Chinese athlete seemed to lose pace, and from then on – it was over. Dimitri’s speed and reading of his opponent was way ahead of his opponent.
It was another incredible milestone for British fencing, as it is thought to be the first time that two British gold medals have been won at World Cup level on home soil on the same day, and indeed, the first British gold medals on home soil at that level since 1981, when Steven Paul won the Martini.
Dimitri and Piers have previously won World Cup gold medals on the same day on the circuit at events as recently as 2022. But this time was extra special.
“Cardiff – I love it here. I went to university here. The city’s great and it’s brought back many memories for me.” said Dimitri.
“The people, the volunteers, the organisers have all been so welcoming, so friendly, and they’ve really made this feel very special.”
Coutya last won a World Cup medal with the epee in Washington D.C. in January 2023. “This one is a weapon I really care about but also struggle with it sometimes. For it to come together today on home soil is really fantastic, and it just felt good for it to be working.”
“It’s pretty overwhelming. We’re leading into the Paralympic year and it’s been a really trying time, even carrying over from the Tokyo cycle. While it’s been a really incredible time of my life so far it’s also been an incredibly emotionally wrecking one as well.”
Britain’s Gemma Collis ended up finishing 6th in the sabre competition after brutal matches which included a thrilling and close-fought bought against her compatriot Susie Seddon-Cowell in the L32, promoting Collis to the L16 and leaving Seddon-Cowell with a fine 27th. The event was won by Gu Haiyan of China, taking her second gold of the competition.
The third day of competition saw Dimitri Coutya collect a second gold medal in his favoured foil, again at the expense of China’s newcomer Qin Benjun, in only his second final.
“These are really important competitions in the build-up to Paris… To come away with a second gold this week in front of home crowds is something I’m glad to have experienced.” Coutya said.
In the women’s epee category B, Thailand’s Saysunee Jana maintained her dominance, taking gold over China’s Xiao Rong – who added to her gold and bronze from the sabre and foil, respectively. Jana remains unbeaten in the weapon since 2020. GB’s Justine Moore produced a strong performance in the elimination rounds, triumphing first over Jo of Korea and then Chung of Hong Kong to reach an excellent 8th place overall.
The men’s foil A final was an all Chinese affair, with Paralympic champion Sun Gang emerging victorious over Asian title holder Saichun Zhong as China moves closer to finalising its national Paralympic selection. Oliver Lam-Watson led home the GB field in 12th, ahead of Joshua Waddell in 23rd and Harry Patient in 43rd.
There was, unfortunately, more heartbreak for Gemma Collis, who finished 7th in the epee A, falling to Amarilla Veres of Hungary in the last eight. She nonetheless cemented her position at the top of the GB listings, making a fine example for Susie Seddon-Cowell (33rd) and Emily Holder (36th) to follow.
Teams day brought a shorter schedule, with competition in women’s epee, men’s foil and mixed sabre. Much of the attention was on the men’s foil competition and the British chances of another medal.
After coming from behind to edge out a surging Ukraine team in the first round – at one point, GBR were six points behind – the British team of Oliver Lam-Watson, Dimitri and Piers (with Josh Waddell in reserve) faced France in the semi-final. The British men never went behind and in the last rotation, Coutya pushed them 12 points ahead. From there the fire went out of the French attack, and GBR were in the final with China.
It would be a rematch of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games men’s team foil final, with China again triumphing over Great Britain in a match between the world number one and the world number two teams.
The Chinese team was led by Paralympic champions Sun Gang and Feng Yanke in categories A and B, respectively. After some evenly-matched opening bouts, things swiftly went China’s way. The last bout, featuring Gilliver against Sun, saw Piers landing an impressive 10 hits against Sun, but the match was already set with Sun only needing five points to secure the win for China, 45-38.
Despite not conquering the Chinese team, it was however important for Paralympic qualification that GBR finished above Italy, who placed third. Both teams are battling to be the top placed team in Europe at the end of the qualifying period in May and gain an automatic spot to Paris.
China’s epee women, after a slow start had little trouble seeing off Poland 45-33 for the gold medal, with Hungary taking bronze. China received a bye straight to the final for the final mixed sabre competition with just themselves, Ukraine and France competing, and ended up thumping Ukraine 20 points to 10.
Gu Haiyan was a member of that team as well as the woman’s epee and took her fourth gold medal of the competition. Gu said: “Of course I must thank my coach, the national team, for bringing me here. This is a very precious chance to learn from my teammates and my opponents. This has paved the way to Paris for me.” China ended up taking all three golds available on the last day.
In the same competition GB’s ladies’ epee team continued their development by securing 10th place overall, gaining valuable insight from matches against Hong Kong, Ukraine, and victory against a strong and wily Italian team.
The medals on the final day of competition were presented by two very special guests; Dawn Bowden MS, the Deputy Minister for Arts and Sports in the Welsh Government, as well as former fencer Pál Szekeres, the chairman of IWAS and with the unique distinction of being the first athlete ever to take a medal at both the Olympics and the Paralympics.
In the final tally, China topped the medal table in Cardiff with 24 medals – 9 gold, 8 silver and 7 bronze, followed by Great Britain with five medals – three gold, one silver and one bronze. It was a Sunday that wrapped what was, without question, one of the finest international fencing competitions ever held in Great Britain. With luck, the next one will come along sooner rather than later.
The next senior competition will be the 2024 Wheelchair Fencing European Championships in Paris, France, on the 5-10 March 2024.
The details of all matches and medals are available here: Cardiff 2024 results.
Photos from Cardiff, taken by Den Pollitt, are available here: britishfencing.smugmug.com
BBC interview with Gemma Collis is available here
All the day’s competition from the two show pistes is available on YouTube, including commentary and interviews with gold medallists:
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