On an unseasonably warm Friday in April, Lauryn DeLuca planted herself on the small stage of a convention center in Milwaukee, peering out from behind the delicate lattice of her fencer’s mask. She crossed her slender epee sword against that of her opponent, Vikki Espinosa, waiting for the go-ahead to begin the strategic dance of jabs that makes up any fencing bout. As far as competitions go, it was a fairly typical scene, with one rather pertinent exception: Lauryn and Espinosa were strapped firmly into wheelchairs.
It was the final round of the 2015 Wheelchair National Championships, the crowning event of competitive wheelchair fencing in the United States. The bout promised to be a good one. Both Lauryn and Espinosa were relative newcomers to the sport, and both had been rapidly ascending the national rankings. For three minutes, the two players careened backwards and forwards in their wheelchairs as they clashed swords, trying to land the tip of their weapon on the upper body of their opponent. Lauryn had wracked up 14 hits, leaving her one point shy of victory, when she noticed that Espinosa’s hand was unprotected. Lauryn lunged. Then she let out a yelp and pulled off her mask, grinning. The bout was over. She had won the gold.
“I’ve always wanted to be really good in fencing,” Lauryn said in an interview with Women in the World. “So I was really proud of myself, that I was able to accomplish such a thing.”
At just 16 years old, Lauryn is ranked the number one women’s wheelchair fencer in the United States for both “epee” and “foil,” two of the three fencing subdivisions (the third is called “saber”; all subdivisions derive their names from the type of weapon used during the game). Within each weapon grouping, wheelchair fencing is divided into three classes based on physical impairment. Lauryn belongs to “Class A,” which includes players with the highest degree of strength and mobility. She was born with moderate cerebral palsy, and actually began her career as an able-bodied fencer. Her transition into the world of wheelchair fencing was a difficult one — both physically and emotionally.
Lauryn is a soft-spoken high-school student with twirling chestnut hair, glasses, and a gentle, almost cherubic face. She is not, in other words, the type of person you would expect to display an affinity for jabbing swords at other humans. Fencing was, in fact, once a secondary interest for Lauryn. She lives in Parma, Ohio, with her parents and her two sisters, who both played volleyball as an extracurricular activity. Lauryn decided to try her hand at the sport, but never quite took to it.
“My sisters did volleyball and I wanted to [follow] in their footsteps, but I was not necessarily good,” Lauryn said with a laugh. “I think I saw fencing in the Olympics and wanted to try that.”
When she was 9 years old, Lauryn joined a fencing club and initially played against able-bodied children. But as she hit puberty and the symptoms of her disorder grew more pronounced, Lauryn started to struggle during competitions.
“I was competing, and I was getting more tired,” she said. “I wasn’t really able to perform … at my best ability.”
While watching their daughter compete in a tournament in 2012, Lauryn’s parents were approached by Les Stawicki, the coach of the USA wheelchair fencing team. Without much in the way of an introduction, he asked if Lauryn was disabled, to which her parents reluctantly replied in the affirmative.
“I look at him, like, ‘Who the heck are you?’” Steve DeLuca, Lauryn’s father, recalled.
“Then he reaches out his hand. He says, ‘My name is Les Stawicki. I am the coach of the national Olympic team. I want your daughter on my team.’”
To a certain extent, this meeting with Stawicki seemed heaven-sent: entering into the stream of wheelchair fencing would allow Lauryn to keep playing the sport she loved, even as her strength declined. But Lauryn’s parents decided to keep quiet about Stawicki’s offer. Lauryn was 14, and sensitive about her disability. Though she experienced physical impairment, she didn’t need a wheelchair to get around, and her parents were reluctant to suggest that she use one in any capacity.
“Me and her dad didn’t know how Lauryn would take it,” said Lauryn’s mother, Tracy DeLuca. “I wasn’t too sure [what] her feelings would be … She doesn’t want to be treated as a person with a disability, just as a regular human.”
But as the weeks went on, Lauryn’s cerebral palsy became increasingly hard to ignore. She attended the 2012 National Championships as an able-bodied fencer, and struggled to keep up with her competitors. “I didn’t train that well,” Lauryn recalled. “I was doing a lot, but since I was getting really tired, I wasn’t performing the way I should have been. So I was really down on myself that day.”
That afternoon, Lauryn’s parents gently suggested that she try out the wheelchair track of the sport. And so Lauryn agreed to travel to Kentucky for the national wheelchair fencing training camp. “I had to come to terms with [the fact] that I wasn’t competing as well as I should have been in able-bodied,” Lauryn said. “It wasn’t going to be worth it in the end.”
At the training camp, Lauryn fenced from a wheelchair for the first time. While the rules and strategies that govern wheelchair fencing are largely the same as the ones that apply to the able-bodied version of the sport, wheelchair fencing mandates a unique set of skills. Because wheelchair fencers cannot rely on footwork, they must build up enough core strength to propel themselves backwards and forwards while sitting in their chairs. And since wheelchairs are bolted to the ground during fencing matches, competitors find themselves at unusually close proximity to one another.
“The two wheelchairs are stationary,” said Nick Arlington, who coaches Lauryn at a local fencing club. “[Competitors] are very close, relative to one another, so it does require a lot faster reflexes. The action is a lot faster paced, because you can’t really back up from the person you’re fencing. You’re right there all the time, and so you have to rely on those reflexes.”
Once Lauryn learned to adapt her skills to the wheelchair, she began to play regularly at tournaments across the country. She is a determined player, quick with her weapon, and saw considerable success in a short period of time.
“She’s really dedicated,” Arlington said. “She comes in almost every night of the week that we’re open, and wants to work hard. This summer, she had a back injury, and even though she’s not supposed to be getting back into it, she’s chomping at the bit to still be coming every single day and working hard. She’s very fast, and she is very competitive. She really, really wants to win.”
Of course, as a 16-year-old girl, Lauryn has other pursuits to occupy her mind. She plays percussion in her high school band. She is taking honors courses, and is working hard to keep her grades up so she can go to college — “somewhere kind of far from home,” she hopes — for biomedical engineering. Lauryn’s parents are, to put it mildly, rather proud.
“Her grade point average is quite high,” her father said. “She’s number seven in her class.” He turned to his daughter. “And there’s like, what? 400 people in your class?”
“I don’t even know,” Lauryn replied, looking as though she wished she could dissolve into the floor.
But as she keeps busy with band practice, and AP courses, and college tours, there is one ambition that lingers constantly at the forefront of Lauryn’s mind: Rio.
With a quiet sort of determination, Lauryn is doing everything in her power to prepare herself for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, which will take place two weeks after the Olympics conclude. To meet the criteria for automatic qualification, Lauryn will need to win gold at one of the “zonal championships”—international competitions that take place in distinct regions of the world. Because top players across the globe are often selected to compete at Paralympic events, Lauryn could also try to wrack up points at various world championships in order to improve her international ranking (she currently stands at 32nd for epee, and 41st for foil). But at the moment, flying around the world to play at tournaments is not a feasible option for Lauryn. Her parents simply cannot afford the trips.
Competitive fencers are eligible to receive funding from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), but money for wheelchair fencers tends to run in relatively short supply. For the most part, this disparity can be chalked up to proportions. Ginny Bodyston, manager of the US Paralympic wheelchair fencing team, estimates that about 35 men and women compete regularly in national competitions. Able-bodied fencers, by contrast, number in the thousands. “You are going to have more money that goes to able-body, because the numbers are larger,” Bodyston explained.
But Bodyston also noted that the USOC occasionally provides financial support to individual players who perform well at international competitions. “Able-body [American fencers] internationally are really doing well,” she said. “They’re on the podium consistently with world cups and championships. For the wheelchair, we are not on the podium.”
The industry practice of funding high-ranking global competitors is frustrating to Lauryn; she cannot improve her international standing if she can’t afford to fly to most of the world tournaments. Her mother and father—who work as a school monitor and an accountant, respectively—pay for as many trips as they can, but their resources are finite. Most recently, Lauryn was compelled to reject an invitation to compete at the world championships in Hungary because the financial costs were too steep.
“Even though she’s 16, I just don’t feel that she can go overseas by herself,” said Tracy DeLuca. “I’d rather have an adult [with her] until she’s at least 18 or so. So that means two airfares, two registration fees, and that also includes the hotel and the food … If we would have accepted next month’s [competition in] Hungary, the entry fee was over almost $1600. And airfare was about $1000 per person. So we had to decline that. [Lauryn] was the number one pick for both foil and epee, but I couldn’t do it. She would have done it if we had the money.”
To help subsidize Lauryn’s wheelchair fencing pursuits, her parents launched a Kickstarter campaign, but it has not been particularly successful. Out of an $80,000 goal, the DeLucas have only raised $550. So Steve DeLuca has been contemplating other fundraising options, like a local tournament, in which any proceeds would be split between the winner and Lauryn.
As the adults in her life worry about money, Lauryn is doing her best to maintain her grades and train as much as she can. Competing in the Paralympics would be an exhilarating experience, and she wants it, badly. But even if her goals for Rio do not come to fruition, Lauryn knows that she has already gained much from the sport that she loves. Before she started wheelchair fencing, Lauryn was profoundly ill-at-ease with her disability. Immersing herself in an adaptive sport helped her realize that she could accept her limitations without surrendering her ambitions and hopes for the future.
“Growing up with a disability, I was insecure about it,” she said. “Being in the wheelchair, I embraced that yes, I am disabled.