By Carey Miller
Health and Research News Service

Josh Russell of Mendenhall, at right, fences DeJuan Surrell of Jackson on the way to winning gold in foil at the State Games of Mississippi, held at Methodist Rehab on June 15.

Methodist Rehab therapeutic recreation director Ginny Boydston measures the striking distance between fencers DeJuan Surrell of Jackson, at left, and Josh Russell of Mendenhall.

Josh Russell of Mendenhall.

Since he started wheelchair fencing two years ago, Josh Russell of Mendenhall has had a lot of firsts.

He traveled out of the country for the first time, for his first wheelchair fencing World Cup in Montreal in April—which was also his first time on an airplane. And he nabbed first place in foil at the State Games of Mississippi in June, making him state champion. He went overseas for the first time in July, for his second World Cup in Warsaw. And soon he will be competing in his first IWAS Wheelchair Fencing World Championship, to be held in Budapest Aug. 7-12.

“At a young age he’s had a lot of experiences and opportunities he probably never dreamed he would do,” said Ginny Boydston, director of the therapeutic recreation program at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson. “And it’s all due to his interest in wheelchair fencing.”

His accomplishments are all the more impressive since fencing is the first sport the 18-year-old has ever tried, or thought he even could.

“If not for fencing, I would probably be just sitting in my room reading, or doing whatever it is I used to do,” he said. “I had no interest in sports growing up at all—I still don’t really now, other than fencing. Those ‘normal’ sports like football, I don’t know a thing about them at all.”

Russell was born with spina bifida, a congenital disorder that affects the spinal cord. It is one of the most common birth defects, affecting 1 in 1,000. Mild forms of the disorder can be corrected with surgery, but more severe forms lead to disability.

“I could walk with a limp until I was about 12,” Russell said. But as the disorder progressed, it weakened his left leg until amputation was necessary.

His right leg was still functional, so Russell went to Methodist Orthotics & Prosthetics in Flowood to look into getting a prosthetic. There, he first found out about wheelchair fencing.

“They mentioned that it could be good for scholarships,” Russell said. “So my mom said right then and there ‘You’re at least going to try this out.’”

Russell has a keen interest in robotics as both a hobby and career path, so anything that could help him attain his goal of going to college and “getting away from home would be awesome,” he said.

Soon after visiting Methodist O&P, Russell’s right leg began to weaken, requiring him to rely on a wheelchair and abandon his plans for a prosthetic leg. He could still try wheelchair fencing, though, and loved it.

“I’ve never been able to be very active before, so it was great to just get to do something,” Russell said. “I’m not really sure why, but I know I like it. And hey, you get to stab people.”

Boydston says Russell has shown a talent for more than just stabbing. He excels at tactics and strategy, a big component of the fast-paced sport.

The rules of fencing are the same for disabled and able-bodied competitors, with a few exceptions. Wheelchair fencers lock their chairs into metal frames to avoid tipping over. They stay seated and keep their feet on the footrest during competition. Scoring is done electronically, and points are awarded when the weapon—either a foil, epee or sabre—touches a specific target area.

“He’s got the game figured out, he’s got the mind for it,” Boydston said. “And he’s better at foil than epee, which is unusual. Most fencers are better at epee in the beginning.”

“I know I like foil more,” Russell said. “Probably because I’ve been doing better at it—that’s exactly why, actually.”

David Williams of Ridgeland, who coaches Methodist Rehab’s Blade Rollers wheelchair fencing team, said that the sport has not only made Russell more active, it’s helped him become physically fit, which is a great benefit.

“Josh—if you look at him now compared to what he looked like when he started—he doesn’t even look like the same person,” Williams said. “His chest is bigger and his arms are bigger. He’s becoming more of an athlete.”

That’s because of the Blade Rollers’ intense weekly practices.  They give Russell access not only to the guidance of Williams and Boydston, who served as team leader for the U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Fencing Team in London last year, but also allows him to practice with seasoned Paralympians Ryan Estep and Joey Brinson, both of Florence.

“I get to see these guys three times a week now,” Russell said. “They’ve taught me a lot, and not just about fencing. I’ve only been in a chair for three years, and they’ve taught me some day-to-day things about using a wheelchair that you just don’t figure out on your own.”

But, as with any sport, there’s always a little bit of picking on the rookie.

“It’s really fun to watch their interactions, because they don’t cut him any slack,” Williams said. “They’re always pushing him, and kidding with him. But that’s because they really do care about him a lot.”

“He is kind of like our little brother—so we try our best to be a good influence,” Brinson said.

Williams said Russell’s lack of athletic experience has presented some coaching challenges.

“You try to make reference from their perspective,” Williams said. “If they’ve done a different sport before you can then relate fencing to it—the differences and similarities. But having not been in a sport before, a lot of it is new to him.

“But Josh is a really smart kid, and that helps. Not only do you have to be very physical, but you’ve also got to be smart to fence. You’ve got to be able to think very, very fast, especially in wheelchair fencing, where they’re in such close proximity to each other.”

“He picks up on things fast and figures out the best way to do them,” Brinson said. “I think he’s learned a lot about fencing in a real short time, maybe more than he even realizes. I think he’ll go far if he sticks with it.”

Boydston also believes that with the proper dedication Russell can also reach the level of competition that his teammates have.

“He’s a young, new fencer, so he needs to gain more experience internationally, which is what he’s trying to do,” Boydston said. “He’s been rock solid at NACs (North American Cups), consistently finishing third or better, which has gotten attention from the international team.”

Being so young and new to the sport, Russell’s just getting stabbing.

“Fortunately for Josh, the next Paralympics is still pretty far off,” Williams said, referring to the next event to be held in Rio de Janiero, Brazil in 2016. “He’s got plenty of time to get some world cups behind him and get some experience to make the team.”

“I think internationally he will come around to be a force other countries will start to fear,” Boydston said. “Right now they’re saying, ‘who’s that new kid?’ He’s gotten their attention, but I think in the next six months he will have it fully as a contender.”