Why We Need Olympians

Photo credit: Devin Manky Photography

Why We Need Olympians

I clearly remember the summer of 1976. It was so hot, so humid and so exciting! I was visiting my father in Montreal for a month and it was the summer of the 1976 Olympic Games. We couldn’t afford tickets to go see anything, but I was glued to the TV watching the Games unfold, and I remember being mesmerized by the athletes, the country colours, and all that pomp and circumstance. Out in the city, just walking around the streets, the energy and excitement was palpable. It’s like Montreal had its own heartbeat and rhythm that swept you up like a human tide. I was hooked on Olympic spirit!


At eleven years of age I was a young dancer, so my sport of choice to watch on TV was gymnastics, and my fascination therefore resided with the 14 year old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci. She was the first gymnast to score a perfect 10. In total she achieved seven perfect 10 scores and she won three gold medals that summer. She was strength, power, grace and beauty personified, in my adolescent mind. My spark for sport was ignited that summer, and it has stayed with me throughout my life, and my coaching career. The belief in the mere possibility, of the human journey towards the Olympics, was infectious.

At its essence, sport is really the human joy of movement. Sometimes we move alone, sometimes in harmony with other people, and sometimes in contest with other people, but in all sport we think and move our brains and bodies for pleasure and enjoyment. The first time you try the sport of fencing the goal is to feel the fencing. There is a rhythm to fencing, a special cadence that takes over your body and your mind. As coaches we are not interested in teaching too many positions, technical or tactical skills, we simply want people to feel the fun of fencing. It is an organic, creative, self-satisfying feeling of sight, sound, and sense, and ultimately playing with others. To touch, and not be touched, the simple game of two person tag, done with a tool called a sword, which inspires smiles, laughter, oohs and ahs, and in the end a simple handshake that says “you were a worthy opponent, thank you for playing, that was fun!”

At RMCC we have the tradition of a successful fencing program. The sport has been at the college since approximately 1889, when British Fencing Instructor Sergeant-major Morgans (1878-97) was tasked with teaching the cadets of the time gymnastics, fencing, boxing and infantry drill.[1] He himself was a North American champion in foil, epee and bayonet from 1888-1895. Considered an important skill for military officers, fencing was a perfect fit with its protocols, discipline and stringent rules, within the newly established Royal Military College of Canada. Since then, fencing at RMCC has taken on many shapes; from early swordplay derived from bayonet training, to recreational club, on to competitive club, to the current professionally run varsity and community programs. In fact, the majority of Canadian Armed Forces CISM Fencers have come out of the RMCC Fencing Program, since its inception in 2005.

Cutting Edge Fencing, which is a community oriented, fundraising program of RMCC Fencing, has been training all levels of participants from beginners to advanced competitive fencers since the fall of 2003. The program goal is to reach out to the larger Kingston community, provide margin of excellence funding to the two varsity teams, and to develop young athletes in a “high performance mentality” to achieve their maximum potential. To date, more Cutting Edge fencers have become recruit-athletes to RMCC Fencing than any other fencing club in Canada. Over the years the coaches have also advanced their skills as much as the athletes; having achieved their highest level of coaching as Maîtres d’armes, and coaching for Team Canada at numerous international events over the years. Both the RMCC Fencing and Cutting Edge programs have produced athletes that have made Canadian National Teams, competed at North American and World Cups, numerous World Championships, Pan Ams, FISU Games, Military World Championships and Military World Games. There is a strong tradition of hard work, team building, and a sense of sport family in the RMCC Fencing programs. Consequently, it makes sense that someone wanting to aspire to higher goals, and achieve great things in sport, would see RMCC Fencing Programs as an excellent choice for coaching support and future sport success.

In 2013 a British teenager named Leonora MacKinnon had a decision to make. An epee fencer, she had begun fencing at the age of 8 at her school. Both her older sisters were in fencing, and since Leo wanted to do everything they did, she decided that she would join fencing too. She progressed very well and by 2010 she had won gold at the United Kingdom Schools Games. (UKSG) Her fencing future looked bright, however, she missed her big goal of making the Under 17 Cadet National Team that season. Consequently she couldn’t compete at the 2010 European Championships and the Cadet/Junior World Championships. The next season Leo was able to make the U17 & U20 teams for the European Championships; however she was only able to make the top 64 in U17 and failed to win one bout in U20. In Jordan, at the World Cadet(U17) & Junior(U20) Championships, Leo also made top 64 in U17 however she was only selected as an alternate for the U20 team event, and unfortunately never got a chance to fence, which was again a disappointment. Meanwhile at that same Cadet & Junior World Championships, Cutting Edge fencer Kerr Hutchinson finished 6th in the world, coached by Maître David Howes.

After her first big foray into international fencing Leo continued to train and compete in the sport. She overcame her disappointing losses, and set her sights on the British High Performance Program, as she moved age groups from being a Cadet, under 17 fencer, to a Junior under 20 fencer. She began to train more seriously, competed, and was focused on gaining experience on the international World Cup circuit. Her new big goal was to be identified as an up-and-coming fencer in the British “Talented Athlete Development Program”. Her tenacity to recover from her earlier disappointments with the national team fueled her drive to try to make the TAD program. She worked hard, showed good results both in the fencing-specific and in the athletic testing, and was feeling more positive and rejuvenated. Leo believed again that things were back on track for her fencing.

Shockingly, Leo was not identified or selected for the program. Her family lobbied to support her by challenging the selection results; however it was to no avail. Devastated by this decision, Leo considered leaving the sport, out of frustration and a sense of futility, in dealing with the British national body for fencing. Then a serendipitous turn of events occurred. It was at a pre-world championships training camp in Spain where Leo first met Canadian Women’s Epee National Coach Maître David Howes. Leo and her Mum then both went to watch the senior world championships in Budapest, where they met with David to discuss options for Leo, as she also had Canadian citizenship through her mother, who was born in Canada. After this meeting, a plan of action for Leo’s fencing future began to be formulated. Since Leo had both Canadian and British citizenship, there were new and interesting choices for her to make for her future fencing career. National Coach David Howes was tasked by the Canadian Fencing Federation (CFF) with building the women’s epee program and naturally, Leo MacKinnon was a perfect fit to join the program.

After much discussion and a review of her options, Leo MacKinnon made the decision to begin to fence for Canada instead of Great Britain. Much paperwork was filled out and processed and eventually everything was in place, except for one thing; Leo needed to be a member of a Canadian fencing club. Having been mentored and guided by National Coach David Howes through the paperwork maze, to establish herself as a Canadian fencer, the logical choice for a Canadian coach was David Howes and therefore Cutting Edge Fencing. And a good choice it was. At her first competition in Canada, Leo won Silver in Junior Women’s Epee and Gold in Senior Women’s Epee. She met all the top Cutting Edge club fencers and parents, and was welcomed wholeheartedly into her new Canadian fencing family. Her performance shocked and startled the greater fencing community, as they wondered who this newcomer was in Canadian fencing. Leo too, was nervous at first as this was such a big shift, however, she quickly learned that everyone was supportive and welcoming, something that Leo had been searching for in her fencing life. Belonging, being supported, being listened to and being believed in, is crucial for athletes to succeed.

Over the past three years Leo has been a member of the Canadian High Performance Program in women’s epee. She has continued to progress and grow as an athlete and is achieving top results more and more consistently; her most recent result was a Gold Medal in Split Croatia at a Satellite World Cup in May 2016. Her outstanding bronze medal win at the 2015 Pan Am Championships in Santiago Chile, really launched her, into Olympic contention. It catapulted her lofty dream goal into a realistic, truly achievable goal. As Leo states; “I’ve always dreamt of the Olympics, but never thought I would be going to the 2016 Olympics. I always had my sight set on 2020. The 2016 Olympics became a tangible goal for me after my result at the Pan Am Championships.”

Through all of this, Canadian Coach David Howes has been there supporting her, coaching her at international events, taking care of the CFF sport admin, and building a successful national team program of young Canadian women in epee, driven to push each other to reach for the top. Working as much as a manager at times, Coach Howes coordinates travel, training ops, liaises with Leo’s international support team including her Paris-based coach, sport psychologist, NSO and Sport Canada, and ensures her path to the Olympics stays on track. Even through a ruptured ankle injury, and subsequent surgery in 2014, Leo was able to stay positive and focused on her goals. Most importantly, Leo made the important decision early on to focus on being a professional athlete, which meant leaving home to pursue top training ops and competitive events all over the world. This is what it takes to be an Olympian; 100% commitment to the lifestyle of athlete, 100% dedication to your goals, 100% trust in the team around you to achieve your dream. It is not an easy thing to do, but with tenacity, resilience and determination Leonora MacKinnon was able to achieve her dream and become an Olympian. To borrow from Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) language, Leo is not only competing to win, she is living to win.

Over the years Leo was fortunate to meet many Olympians herself, which meant that an Olympic dream was possible in her young eyes, and contributed to her belief that the Olympics were a one-day tangible goal. “I’ve met quite a few Olympians. When I was very young I met Pippa Funnel and William Fox Pitt at some riding competitions and we are good family friends with Olympic Medalist Mary Gordon Watson. When I was 17, I was part of the Jaguar Academy of Sport through which I met Dame Kelly Holmes, Sir Steve Redgrave and Denise Lewis. I met Kate Allenby when I was about 15 along with some others at the UK School Games. And then there are those in British fencing who I’ve known since I was about 13 – Alex O’Connell, Richard Kruse.”

Leo also understands that her rise to success has been the result of a huge circle of support. The old adage that “it takes a village to raise a child” is very fitting in sport as well. Leo acknowledges that truth, saying        “I know that over the years I’ve had around 7 or 8 coaches that have really impacted my career. Then there’s family and friends, Physios, psychologists, university, schools, teachers, federations, and developmental groups. There’s way too many to count! I think it’s more than a village. I think it’s more like a small town.”  And she is right. When you listen to any Olympian speak about their journey, they always refer to the struggles along the way and the people who helped them get through them. It’s because as human beings we recognise that not all of us can become Olympians ourselves, but we can help someone else achieve this dream. We can, by association, by supporting, by helping, mentoring, guiding and coaching; we too can be part of that very big, very elusive dream. Even though we may not be part of the final destination, we can all be part of the journey, and the human experience of overcoming the obstacles and challenges to say “together we did this.”  This is why we need Olympians.

Leo summed it up very well when asked about what she is most looking forward to in Rio. “The Olympics is a life time goal of mine which I have now achieved. It signifies a journey of hard work, sweat and tears, as well as happiness and exhilaration. Each cycle brings new challenges that you have to overcome in order to achieve your ultimate goal. It is something I can say I have done and no one can take that away from me.”  While Leo is obviously looking forward to the fencing competition itself, the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and meeting new people, she is most looking forward to enjoying the energy of the Olympic Games; the atmosphere and the spirit of the Olympics is truly what draws us all in. This is certainly what I saw, heard and felt back in 1976 in Montreal, and it has stayed with me my entire life as a person and a professional coach.

So as we go about our day to day life, going to work, picking up groceries, doing errands, trying to get enough sleep, reducing our stress, and basically living life, it is nice to daydream about lofty ideas like the Olympics. It energizes us, inspires us, and motivates us to be our best at whatever we do, at whatever level, and reminds us that through our Olympians we too can enjoy and embrace the energy and spirit that is the Olympic Games. We all need Olympians because they are all people just like us; people who face challenges and obstacles, people who succeed and fail, people who laugh and cry, and hope and dream… just like us. Through them we can believe in the potential to experience and achieve great things. And while we may not all have the opportunity to be Olympians, the potential to be excellent, and embrace the Olympic spirit, resides in all of us.

All the members of RMC Fencing and Cutting Edge Fencing, past & present, would like to congratulate our Cutting Edge athlete Ms Leonora MacKinnon, and Cutting Edge/Varsity Coach Maître David Howes Ch.P.C., for their qualification and selection to the Canadian National Team for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio Brazil! Well done!!!

To help support Leonora Mackinnon in her Make a Champ Campaign please go to http://makeachamp.com/leonoramackinnon/24836

#Road2Rio #Fencing #Olympics #FIE #MakeAChamp #Campaign #Rio2016 #2016 Olympics

Submitted by RMCC Fencing Programs Coordinator & Varsity Head Coach, Maître Patricia Lynne Howes Ch.P.C.


[1] To Preserve & Defend: Essays on Kingston in the Nineteenth Century, p.131, Edited by Gerald Tulchinsky, McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal & London 1976