As an avid fencer since the age of 12, Nima Abbaszadeh thought he knew everything there was to know about the sport he loved. He had spent years competing in tournaments, refining his technique and developing a deep appreciation for the skills and mentality the sport had helped him hone.

Nima and a teammate practicing epee fencing at the University of Western Ontario

But when he met the talented Amber Briar, a wheelchair fencer on Canada’s national team, he realized there was more to learn and was inspired to spread awareness of the division of the sport she competed in through a 12-hour fencing marathon to raise money for the Paralympics.

“Meeting Amber opened my eyes to a whole new world of fencing. Before her, I had never heard of wheelchair fencing or how the sport was practiced at the Paralympics, which really motivated me to want to raise awareness about the sport and the amazing athletes who practice it.”

Drawing inspiration from others to create impact is something Nima loved about his time at Shad in 2019. In the program, he was introduced to amazing mentors and STEAM professionals who taught the Shads how to use their skills and knowledge to solve real-world problems, encouraging them to approach challenges as opportunities to make a difference.

“At Shad, we heard from and learned a lot about people who do pretty awesome things. And they don’t do these things because someone told them to, it’s because they had an idea and they took it upon themselves to see that idea through because they believed in the value of it and the difference it could make.”

It was this “can do” attitude that Nima drew upon when he and his fencing teammates at the University of Western Ontario (UWO), where he was completing his undergraduate degree in Integrated Science, were planning a fundraiser for the team. The year before, they had participated in Relay For Life to raise money for cancer and the team hoped to emulate that fundraising structure for their own initiative.

“Relay for Life was a great experience and we liked the idea of a kind of fencing marathon to raise money. At Relay for Life, we fenced from seven at night to five in the morning, which was fun but also exhausting. However, it provided us a great template to inform future fundraisers and how we’d plan our own initiative.”

Members of the UWO fencing team practicing wheelchair fencing at their fundraiser for the Paralympics

With that format in mind, Amber, who was new to the UWO team that year, suggested wheelchair fencing as the basis of the marathon, a sport she had been practicing with Canada’s national team for years and that the team had never heard of. Though she does not require the daily use of a wheelchair, Amber has a leg impairment that limits her mobility and requires the use of a leg brace while active, a disability that qualifies her to participate in the sport since qualification criteria is based on an athlete’s level of mobility.  

“She explained to us how wheelchair fencing works, the rules and different techniques used by the athletes, and taught us how to practice the sport. We loved it, we couldn’t believe we had never heard about it before and that we had one of the best athletes at the sport in the country on our team! It just solidified for us the need for our initiative to involve raising awareness of the sport and fundraising for the Paralympics.”

The team got to work planning the details of the initiative, booking space in one of the campus’s student spaces and setting up a livestream so that supporters could watch the initiative from wherever they were tuning in and linking them to the team’s fundraising page.

“We ran the full 12-hour marathon, which included wheelchair fencing. The initiative was hugely successful, we had lots of students show up to support us and we raised over $4,000, which was amazing since our initial goal was $1,500.”

For Nima, the ability of the team to rally people around them to support a great cause validated an important lesson he took away from his Shad summer. Shad taught him the importance of building a community of other changemakers around you and understanding the power of a great network to move the ball forward and get things done.

“Shad showed me that when you surround yourself with good people and you trust yourself to have good ideas, there’s not much you can’t get done. So when you have an idea and you share it with others, the people around you will figure out how they can help. Everyone has a role to play and collectively you get it over the finish line.”

Nima at a lecture at Shad2019 at the University of Prince Edward Island

For Nima, being able to help others chase their own athletic goals through this fundraiser was really important. Fencing has played such an important role in his life, connecting him with lifelong friends, helping him build confidence, and ultimately teaching him important life skills.

“One thing we really took away from this experience was the high barrier to entry for wheelchair fencing. Not only do the athletes have the cost of all the standard fencing gear, which is expensive, but they also need additional items as well as the wheelchair, which is all costly. I know how much I have benefitted from fencing and what it’s given me, so being able to help someone else pursue their own fencing experience was really gratifying.”

Nima plans to continue to support wheelchair fencing by participating in initiatives coming out of the Ontario Fencing Association (OFA) to raise awareness for wheelchair fencing. The OFA has created a category of wheelchair fencing for people without a disability to encourage more athletes to learn and promote the sport, which Nima hopes to be a part of.

UWO fencing teammates practicing wheelchair fencing for their marathon fundraiser for the Paralympics

“I want people to understand that wheelchair fencing is not a lesser version of fencing. It’s not ‘we’re doing fencing but fencing that’s pared down a little bit to make it easier’. It has its own rules, it has its own strategies, and the people who do it are real athletes engaged in a tough sport, they deserve recognition for that.”

We couldn’t agree more as we take time for reflection this National Accessibility Week.

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