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Wheelchair Warrior

Underneath a mask of canvas and mesh, amidst the tinny clank of slender swords inside the converted warehouse Salem Classical Fencing calls home, Sam Ramirez is smiling.

Ramirez collects his gear from his locker at Salem Classical Fencing before a training session with coach Nanci Keatley -- his last before leaving for Reno and the North American Cup -- on Thursday.

Photo by Pete Strong

Ramirez collects his gear from his locker at Salem Classical Fencing before a training session with coach Nanci Keatley -- his last before leaving for Reno and the North American Cup -- on Thursday.

March 13, 2013

Underneath a mask of canvas and mesh, amidst the tinny clank of slender swords inside the converted warehouse Salem Classical Fencing calls home, Sam Ramirez is smiling.

It's Wednesday at the club -- or salle -- an open day set aside for sparring. Sam's crossing blades with Clare Burnett, one of the best young fencers in Oregon.

13-year-old Sam Ramirez of Independence, left, spars with Clare Burnett, also 13, of Salem during an epee bout at Salem Classical Fencing on March 6. Ramirez will compete at the 2013 March North American Cup, a USA Fencing competition, this weekend in Reno, Nev.

Photo by Pete Strong

13-year-old Sam Ramirez of Independence, left, spars with Clare Burnett, also 13, of Salem during an epee bout at Salem Classical Fencing on March 6. Ramirez will compete at the 2013 March North American Cup, a USA Fencing competition, this weekend in Reno, Nev.

The two 13-year-olds attack, parry, riposte and counter attack. Lights in their fencing lane that indicate hits flash in her favor. Sam manages a touch or two, but knows this bout is hers.

At the conclusion, Burnett rises from the wheelchair she's seated in across from Sam, shares a kind word and walks away.

A cheerful expression on his face, Sam leans back in his own wheelchair and waits for his next opponent.

"That didn't go so well," he said. "But it's fun, that's what it's supposed to be."

Sam's coach, Nanci Keatley, said Sam must bring his game face for training the next day. They've got to address his lunges -- he's using his abdominal muscles to lean forward instead of pushing off the chair with his non-sword arm for extension, Keatley said.

He'll need that technique this weekend, when Sam will be in Reno, Nev., for USA Fencing's 2013 March North American Cup. A paraplegic who suffers from spina bifida, Sam will compete in the wheelchair men's epee competition.

Salem Classical Fencing executive director Jill Summers, left, hands Ramirez his epee as opponent Clare Burnett prepares for a bout.

Photo by Pete Strong

Salem Classical Fencing executive director Jill Summers, left, hands Ramirez his epee as opponent Clare Burnett prepares for a bout.

He'll be the only wheelchair fencer from Oregon -- and possibly the sole West Coast representative, said Jill Summers, Salem Classical Fencing's executive director.

"It's a really small sport, there's only eight other people in the event from all across the country," said Summers, who's coached Sam for the past two years. "He's the youngest one ... I think the next youngest guy is 25."

Sam will be traveling with "Team Ramirez" -- his parents, Sarah and Jesus Ramirez, and his grandparents. Whether he's nervous is hard to discern.

"He's got a certain level of bravado ...," Summers said with a laugh.

"My goal is just to win as many matches as I can," Sam said. "And have fun."

--

Sarah Ramirez has realistic expectations for Sam this weekend -- he'll actually be taking on men who competed in the 2012 Paralympics. And he's still a relative beginner. That he's reached this stage, however, is a point of pride, she said.

Sam was diagnosed with spina bifida 19 weeks after Sarah learned she was pregnant in 1999. The congenital disorder results when a baby's spine doesn't develop properly; vertebrae are often missing or half open, leaving the spinal cord exposed.

Some spina bifida children lead normal lives, while others suffer from physical or mental defects. To avoid the most severe issues, Sam underwent surgery at Vanderbilt Hospital in Tennessee in October 1999 while still in the uterus. He was the 61st baby in the world to receive the procedure, Sarah Ramirez said.

Sam was born free of mental disabilities and didn't have the cleft lip an ultrasound indicated. But the size of the lesion on his back left him without the use of his legs and has caused him his share of health problems.

Ramirez faces off with coach Nanci Keatley during their training session Thursday. Wheelchair fencers

Photo by Pete Strong

Ramirez faces off with coach Nanci Keatley during their training session Thursday. Wheelchair fencers' chairs are in a fixed position, leaving them only an arm's length from each other at all times.

It's harder for him to control weight because of limited mobility. Kidney failure, allergic reactions and broken bones are all threats, while respiratory and skin infections are potentially "devastating," Sarah Ramirez said.

Sam had arrived at the salle this day after seeing eight different doctors at Doernbechers Children's Hospital in Portland for his biannual checkup.

"Sam has had several close calls from the time he was born to even a year ago," Sarah Ramirez said. "He is keeping his guardian angel busy."

--

Sam doesn't let his disabilities stop him. His friends have figured out ways to include him in games of football, soccer and basketball. He has an all-terrain wheelchair that can be used to get around on the beach.

Two years ago, Sam saw a fencing demonstration at his church. That, along with an affection for "The Princess Bride," "The Three Musketeers" and other movies featuring swordplay, prompted him to take up fencing.

Sam fences at Salem Classical Fencing, which Summers said is one of only three salles in Oregon with its own wheelchair fencing program. Sam spars with both wheelchair and able-bodied athletes.

Exercise bands for his arms, wheelchair pushups and distance rolling are part of his regimen for endurance and strength.

"The first few months, I barely knew what was going on," Sam said. "After I really got into it these last couple of years, I got better.

"It's a fun sport, I get to learn new things -- and I get to whack people."

There's a limited number of wheelchair fencers in the United States -- "even at the national level, there's probably no more than 10 fencers," Summers said.

Sam qualified for the North American Cup at a regional event in December. If he continues fencing and improves, he'll have a chance to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil, Sarah Ramirez said.

"I am a firm believer that God can do anything," she said. "Considering Sam's chance of survival at birth was about 5 percent, I am pretty confident he can do whatever he puts his mind to ... it just may be in a different way."

Did You Know?

Wheelchair fencing was developed in England in 1953 by Sir Ludwig Guttman as a way to provide injured war veterans the chance to regain strength, coordination and self esteem. It was introduced at a formal international disability games in 1955 and became part of the Paralympics in 1960.

Wheelchair fencing logo

A wheelchair fencing program was created in the United States in 1994 at the Shephard Spinal Center in Atlanta to encourage team development for future Paralympics.

Wheelchair fencing adopts many of the same rules as regular fencing. The exception is that the athletes are in a fixed position, with the chairs secured to a frame on the floor; the athletes are literally an arm's length away from one another.

Because the fencers compete in such close proximity, the match develops quickly and there's less time to react.

Source: wheelchairfencer.org

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