Glebe fencer’s long-awaited Olympic debut postponed by a year

Kelleigh Ryan with a pumped fist after winning a point in her Women’s Foil Individual Fencing bout against Ana Beatriz Bulcao of Brazil at the CIBC Aquatic Centre during the Toronto 2015 Pan America Games in Canada. Photo: Steve Kingsman

By Dan Plouffe, published Aug. 13 in Glebe Report

In July, fencer Kelleigh Ryan was supposed to experience the pinnacle moment of her athletic career when she’d at last make her Olympic debut at age 33. Instead, she was much less glamorously waiting for 1-800-GOT-JUNK workers to come clear out her apartment.

The COVID-19 pandemic delivered a huge hit to the sports world as a whole, but the impact on Ryan has been especially harsh. The born-and-raised Glebe resident had lived and trained alongside some of the world’s top fencers in New York City since 2013. But the pandemic forced Ryan and her husband/coach to flee from the COVID hotspot.

They setup temporarily at Ryan’s parents’ place on Fifth Ave. for three months, and then decided to move to Calgary (her husband Alex Martin’s hometown). They deemed the risk of training disruptions to be too great in NYC, as Ryan prepares for a rescheduled Tokyo 2021 Games.

“It hasn’t been easy. It’s been stressful. There have been times where I’ve cried,” Ryan says by phone during a quick break from packing up her apartment in Jersey City. “But it’s all been about setting ourselves up as best we can for the future.”

The contrast of her reality to what was supposed to be – competing on sport’s grandest stage – felt “really surreal” for the former Ottawa Internationals soccer player who first tried fencing at age 10.

“It’s crossed my mind that these Olympics may not happen at all,” adds the Glebe Collegiate Institute grad. “I mean, I don’t mind waiting, but that’d be a really big blow if I didn’t get to take part in the end.”

Ryan’s road to the Olympics has been a long journey – one that’s consumed her life for many years. The 5′ 3″ fencer was never a can’t-miss prospect, but “she’s just persevered and continued to push,” says Canadian women’s foil team and Ottawa Fencing coach Paul ApSimon, who first started working with Ryan as a teenager at the RA Centre. “Everything she got was through hard work. I think it’s an amazing story.”

Ryan’s top world ranking as a junior was 83rd, but she started a slow-and-steady march forward while she studied sociology at the University of Ottawa and later political science at Carleton University.

Kelleigh Ryan. File photo

The two-time Ravens female athlete of the year clinched her coveted spot on the national team in 2008 – a position she hasn’t relinquished since.

“I am very proud of that,” underlines Ryan, crediting her multi-sport background and all-around athletic training for her relatively injury-free career. “I really wanted to be on Team Canada as a kid, and I did it.”

Ryan has competed for Canada at every single continental or world championship event for the past 12 years. She’s maintained a senior world ranking between 24th and 49th every year since 2012. There have been many individual and team Pan American medals won along the way, and a pair of satellite World Cup golds. Ryan was the anchor and extra-hit hero as the Canadians cracked the top-8 for the first time ever at a global event.

And there was the epic team triumph on home soil for the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games when Canada beat USA in overtime for their lone victory over the powerhouse Americans in the last dozen years.

It’s a lifetime worth of memories already, but Ryan is keen to add an Olympic appearance as one more. She’s twice been on the doorstep to the Olympics – first in 2012 and again in 2016 – but narrowly missed earning a berth on both occasions.

Powered by “some of my best fencing ever,” Ryan helped the #6-world-ranked Canadian women’s foil team clinch their ticket to the Tokyo Games this season, only to have COVID force the Games’ postponement.

“It’s just funny. It’s like, ‘OK, fencing just really doesn’t want me to quit!’” smiles Ryan, who’d planned to retire from fencing shortly after Tokyo 2020.

Ryan says it was “really nice to be back home” in recent months, though mixed in was the stress of deciding where to live, and trying to work out at a world-class level in her parents’ basement.

“My training has kind of taken a backseat to more pressing things,” notes Ryan, who will soon find a Canadian teammate and the Canadian Sport Institute in Calgary. 

“My motivation hasn’t been very high lately, but I’m not worried because I know it will come back,” adds Ryan, no stranger to bumps on the road. “At the end of the day, whenever I’m struggling, I always come back to the fact that I just love competing and playing sports.

“(Competing at the Olympics) would kind of just round it all out and complete this whole sports journey.”

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