gettyimages 151362016 Wheelchair fencing gives veteran a fighting chance at life

Yijun Chen of China and teammate Jianquan Tian compete in the Men’s Individual Sabre Wheelchair Fencing final on day 8 of the London 2012 Paralympic Games September 6, 2012. (Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images)

By Caitlin M. Kenney

Leo Curtis’ wife gave him an ultimatum: if you do nothing else, get out of the house to take your son to his fencing lessons.

Curtis struggles with PTSD after being severely injured by an IED in Iraq in 2004 that left him in a wheelchair. After serving in the Army for 21 years, he had gained weight and wouldn’t leave his home in Oregon.

But this time he did get out of the house, and after a few months of going to his son’s lessons, a coach approached him about pursuing fencing  — in a wheelchair.

“I was like 99 percent of people in the world, you know, wheelchair what?” he said. “How in the world do you fence from a wheelchair?”

Fencers typically move up and down a “piste” or a strip, whereas in wheelchair fencing the chair is locked into a frame with opponents situated diagonally to one another.

Curtis was a natural to the sport. In the last five years, he has competed and won 19 national medals and three international medals. He competes on the national wheelchair fencing team, alongside four other veterans.

As a sport, he liked fencing first because it allowed him to be active again, helping him lose over 200 pounds.

“It was something I could do without having to worry about people looking at me funny because of my disabilities trying to do a sport,” he said.

“But the other thing is, once I got to know the team and once I started meeting people from other countries that were doing the same thing, it was more like a family.”

Fencing also gave Curtis the same feeling he had in the Army, with everyone there for the same reason.

“When we put the mask on, yeah we’re trying to battle each other to win, but when the mask’s off we all got each other’s back,” he said.

The two favorite weapons Curtis likes to compete in are epee and sabre.

“I love epee because it’s tactful,” he said. “You really have to think about what you’re doing because you’re taking a very small tip and having to place it on your opponent’s body without getting hit.”

Sabre, on the other hand, is much faster and more aggressive.

“I love sabre because well, it’s just brutal. It’s fast, it’s hard. I mean, it’s literally the fastest sport next to shooting when it comes to the speed of the weapon,” he said. “And you’re just going out there and you’re trying to hit them before they hit you. Plain and simple.”

Curtis is working along with USA Fencing to get more attention to the sport as a form of rehabilitation for veterans.

“I think one of the things it has done for me is it brought me to where I wasn’t thinking about the past as much,” he said. Fencing gives Curtis the opportunity to feel like himself from before he was injured.

Curtis said he would love to see wheelchair fencing become one of the sporting events at the Invictus and the DOD Warrior Games.

“I’ve got coaches all over the United States that are ready and willing to train veterans,” he said about getting veterans involved in the sport. He said there are also ways to get veterans their equipment, including a wheelchair, for free from the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense.

You also don’t have to be in a wheelchair to do wheelchair fencing, he said, “you just have to have some disability that prevents you from doing the regular fencing.”

If you are interested in pursuing wheelchair fencing, Leo Curtis says he will hook you up. Contact him at

Connect: @CaitlinMKenney |

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