Glebe fencer’s long-awaited Olympic debut postponed

Fencer Kelleigh Ryan, who grew up in the Glebe, is anxiously awaiting her postponed Olympic debut in Tokyo next year. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0

By Dan Plouffe

Fencer Kelleigh Ryan was supposed to experience the pinnacle of her athletic career in July by making her Olympic debut at the age of 33. Instead, the Tokyo Games were postponed because of COVID-19, and she was left in a much less glamorous spot, waiting for 1-800-GOT-JUNK to clear out her apartment.

The pandemic delivered a huge hit to the sports world, but the impact on Ryan has been especially harsh. Born and raised in the Glebe, she had lived and trained alongside some of the world’s top fencers in New York City since 2013. But the pandemic forced Ryan and her husband/coach Alex Martin to flee the COVID hotspot.

They set up temporarily at Ryan’s parents’ place on Fifth Avenue for three months and then decided to move to Calgary, her husband’s hometown. They deemed the risk of training disruptions to be too great in New York as Ryan prepares in hopes the rescheduled Tokyo games will go ahead in 2021.

“It hasn’t been easy. It’s been stressful. There have been times where I’ve cried,” Ryan says by phone during a quick break from packing up her apartment in Jersey City. “But it’s all been about setting ourselves up as best we can for the future.”

The contrast of her reality with what was supposed to be – competing on sport’s grandest stage – felt “really surreal” for the former Ottawa Internationals soccer player who first tried fencing at age 10.

“It’s crossed my mind that these Olympics may not happen at all,” adds the Glebe Collegiate grad. “I mean, I don’t mind waiting, but that’d be a really big blow if I didn’t get to take part in the end.”

Ryan’s road to the Olympics has been a long journey. The five-foot-three fencer was never a can’t-miss prospect, but “she’s just persevered and continued to push,” says Paul ApSimon, who first started working with Ryan as a teenager and now coaches the Canadian women’s foil team. “Everything she got was through hard work. I think it’s an amazing story.”

Ryan’s top world ranking as a junior was 83rd, but she started a slow-and-steady march up the ranks while she studied sociology at the University of Ottawa and then political science at Carleton University.

The two-time Ravens’ female athlete of the year clinched her coveted spot on the national team in 2008 and hasn’t relinquished it since.

“I am very proud of that,” underlines Ryan, crediting her multi-sport background and all-around athletic training for her relatively injury-free career. “I really wanted to be on Team Canada as a kid, and I did it.”

Ryan has competed for Canada at every single continental or world championship event for the past 12 years. She’s maintained a senior world ranking between 24th and 49th every year since 2012. She has won many individual and team Pan American Games medals and a pair of satellite World Cup golds. Ryan was the anchor and extra-hit hero as the Canadians cracked the top eight for the first time ever at a global event.

And there was the epic team triumph on home soil at the Toronto Pan Am Games in 2015 when Canada beat the U.S. in overtime for their lone victory over the powerhouse Americans in the last dozen years.

It’s a lifetime worth of memories already, but Ryan is keen to add an Olympic appearance. She’s twice been on the doorstep – first in 2012 and again in 2016 – but narrowly missed a berth on both occasions.

Powered by “some of my best fencing ever,” Ryan helped the Canadian women’s foil team, ranked sixth in the world, to clinch their ticket to Tokyo, only to have the games postponed.

“It’s just funny,” says Ryan, who had planned to retire after Tokyo. “It’s like, OK, fencing just really doesn’t want me to quit!”

Ryan says it was “really nice to be back home” in recent months, despite the stress of deciding where to live and trying to work out at a world-class level in her parents’ basement.

“My training has kind of taken a back seat to more pressing things,” notes Ryan, who will soon be back with a Canadian teammate at the Canadian Sport Institute in Calgary.

“My motivation hasn’t been very high lately, but I’m not worried because I know it will come back,” adds Ryan, no stranger to bumps on the road. “At the end of the day, whenever I’m struggling, I always come back to the fact that I just love competing and playing sports.

“[Competing at the Olympics] would kind of just round it all out and complete this whole sports journey.”

Dan Plouffe is executive director of the Ottawa Community Sport Media Team.

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