- Associated Press - Saturday, February 15, 2014

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - The Louisville Fencing Center isn’t a place that one would immediately notice if you’re walking downtown near the intersection of West Muhammad Ali Boulevard and 13th Street.

You would be more apt to glance at the football stadium of Central High School. But just adjacent to the field, tucked away up a ramp, is the home office is a man who knows about championship fencing.

Les Stawicki is Polish by birth but is all-American when it comes to this sport - and he specializes in a specific group of fencers. He has led the U.S. Wheelchair Fencing Team at the last five Paralympic Games and will do so again for the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.

Stawicki, who is not handicapped, is one of six coaches overall named to the national coaching staff that will prepare Team USA for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Stawicki is the only national team wheelchair coach America has ever had since the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

“I was selected,” said Stawicki, the 77-year-old co-founder and head coach of the Louisville Fencing Center. “That means for somebody I’m worth it. You have to have a background. You have to be accepted by athletes.”

Seth Kelsey is the director of sports performance for USA Fencing and a three-time Olympian. He was a member of the committee that selected Stawicki. Kelsey said there was a hiring process but said it became clear that Stawicki was the right coach.

“It’s a complicated role and you have to have a broad range of knowledge,” Kelsey said. “We felt that Les has all that knowledge, and he’s been effective in the past.”

In Atlanta the total field of wheelchair paralympians was around 20 from eight countries. It has grown to 31 counties with about 100 athletes. More competition makes finding the right coach that much more important.

USA team manager Ginny Boydston said the right person is in charge.

“He’s the man - and so deserving,” she said. “He can take a fencer and mold that fencer into a champion. … Les is the finest coach. When I’m around him I’m inspired by what he can do.”

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Stawicki rose to prominence as the head coach of the Ukrainian saber team and was the head coach of the Polish National and Olympic Teams (1972-1990). During his time he tutored the likes of 1972 Olympic gold medalist Victor Sidiak, 1980 Olympic silver medalist Ludomir Chronowsi and 1988 Olympic silver medalist Janusz Olech.

In 1992 he came to America and eventually relocated to Louisville when he was asked to start an international fencing center here. Three years later, he was asked to oversee a different kind of fencing program.

According to the U.S. Paralympics website, wheelchair fencing was first introduced in 1953 and has been a part of the Paralympic program since 1960. The athletes are in wheelchairs that are fixed to the ground - but other than the inability to move away from each other, the sport isn’t all that different from able-bodied fencing.

The athletes dodge their competitors’ touches, and the first fencer to score five touches is the winner.

There are single and team formats. Men use three types of weapons: foil, epee and sabre, women us foil and epee. The athletes are also divided into different categories based on their level of disability (A, B and C classifications). Class A athletes have the greatest range of strength and mobility while Class C athletes have the least.

Bill Murphy is credited with staring the first wheelchair fencing program in America in 1993 in Atlanta. He said he was asked to help assemble a team for the 1996 Olympics. The team needed a coach and through a mutual contact, someone suggested Stawicki.

“Even though he barely spoke English we hit it off right away,” Murphy said. “Les and I worked together and we put together the Paralympic fencing team. From that point, Les remained a stable, driving force for wheelchair fencing.”

To Stawicki, there really isn’t that great a difference between fencing in a wheelchair and regular fencing. The participants use the same weapons as able-bodied athletes.

“There are very few sports that people with disabilities and able-bodied can compete and be integrated,” he said. “In fencing, there is footwork and blade work. If you take away the (footwork), you have wheelchair fencing.”

Neurologist Sir Ludwig Guttmann started the Paralympic movement in 1948 with the Stoke Mandeville Games as a part of the opening for the Olympic Games in 1948. He saw value in using sports as part of the rehabilitation process for patients with severe spinal injuries.

Stawicki sees the value as well.

“It’s the idea of the Paralympic Games: to bring people back to life, to bring people back to sports,” he said. “This was important.”

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Information from: The Courier-Journal, http://www.courier-journal.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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