Accomplished Wheelchair Fencing Athlete Looks Forward to Competing in the Paralympics
After sustaining a spinal cord injury in 2011, Ellen Geddes learned about wheelchair fencing at Shepherd Center.
When Ellen Geddes was introduced to wheelchair fencing, she figured she would give it a try and see if she liked it.
“I was going to the Shepherd Center gym on a Saturday morning to do some extra rehab work,” she says. “The Shepherd Center wheelchair fencing team, the Shepherd Swords, was practicing that morning and the captain of the team, Dennis Aspy, jokingly asked me if I thought it would be fun to stab people.
“I told him ‘Yes!,” she recalls, her voice still echoing that day’s initial enthusiasm. “It’s a great pitch. It worked on me.”
Fast forward to today, and Ellen is ranked 8th in the world in wheelchair fencing and is expected to compete on the U.S. team at the 2020 Paralympic Games, which will be officially announced in June. The games will be held August 24 through September 5 in Tokyo, Japan. (The COVID-delayed games are still called 2020 even though they will take place in 2021).
Ellen’s road to the Paralympics began in 2011. At the age of 22, she sustained a complete spinal cord injury at the T-10 level in a car crash. After receiving care at Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, she arrived at Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program.
During her six months at Shepherd, Ellen participated in various recreational and art therapies, from wheelchair basketball to pottery, but it was fencing that stuck.
“At first, it was hard because I was still learning my body in the chair,” she says. “But within a month of being home [in Aiken, S.C.], I was coming back up to Atlanta and Shepherd Center either every Saturday or every other Saturday to do fencing practice.
“They were long, exhausting days for me, but the more I did it, the better I got, and the easier it got. Also, I got to start competing early. There are a lot more women fencers now, but when I started 10 years ago, there were almost none.”
Before the COVID-19 shutdown started last year, Ellen, now 32, continued to drive to Shepherd two or three times a month to train, and she also trained at a club in Augusta, Georgia. While the pandemic has made traveling for training difficult, Ellen has an ace in the hole – her boyfriend, Will Chase, who also fences in a chair and is a coaching prévôt, a French designation for a level of master coaching.
Combining a personal and coaching relationship has not been an issue for her.
“When he tells me I’m doing something wrong, I trust he knows what he’s talking about,” Ellen says.
Ellen fences using both foil and epee. A foil is lighter and more flexible, and you only get points for touching your opponent’s torso. An epee is heavier, and you get points for touching anywhere above the waist, including the head and arms. The two chairs are locked in place, and competitors fence at a fixed distance based on arm length.
When she’s not fencing, Ellen lives and works on two horse farms she owns in South Carolina – Bridlewood Farm and Maplewood Farm. She and her business partner own about 30 horses and run a breeding program.
Although she is a positive person by nature, Ellen says she can have the same negative thoughts or self-doubts we all experience.
To overcome them, she says, “You have to believe in the skills and knowledge you have in your life. You have those things you can fall back on, and that’s what’s going to keep you moving forward.”
While she was in therapy at Shepherd Center, Ellen adjusted to her new life – psychologically and physically. That transition was made easier by the example of an uncle.
“My uncle David uses a wheelchair and has been my entire life,” she says. “He was paralyzed at 17. I grew up seeing that of course people can live whatever kind of life they want being in a wheelchair. My uncle swam competitively, played wheelchair basketball, has a Ph.D. and is a professor at a small liberal arts school in Ohio. So, I had a very good example for my life to look to.
“I could see life could be fine. This is just a different version.”
Written by Phil Kloer
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.