20 December 2022

"Like all kids, I liked swords" - Piers Gilliver on wheelchair fencing

Paralympic, world and European champion Piers Gilliver reflects on how sport really is for all – it’s simply a matter of finding the one for you

I hated sport when I was younger – I wasn’t interested, I was terrible at every sport I tried, and I’d be the first to admit that I couldn’t catch. I just didn’t think sport was for me.

So I’ll forever be thankful that – sat at home one day as a bored teenager – I googled wheelchair fencing. It immediately caught my attention, it was so totally different from the sports I’d grown up with, like rugby and football.

I was always interested in history – I collect military memorabilia and now run a small business selling antiques – and like all kids, I liked swords. Finally, here was a sport that struck a chord.

Piers strikes at Tokyo 2020

I contacted my local club, Cotswold Fencing Club, but there was no wheelchair fencing coaching available so I kind of forgot about it until a while later when I received an email from the coach Kevin Nelson. He explained that he had completed a course on wheelchair fencing, and did I want to come along? His enthusiasm and commitment to inclusive sport was the next important step on the path I ended up following to where I am today.

It’s a very tactical sport, and I found that fascinating. There is so much to learn beyond physical strength. At the top level everyone is just as fast and can do the same moves – it all boils down to who is tactically smarter.

Still, it took me a while to really discover my competitive side. At first I saw wheelchair fencing as a hobby; I didn’t think the desire to compete was within me. I certainly didn’t think I would be the guy who wins.

Attending ParalympicsGB’s Paralympic Inspiration Programme at London 2012 was the next major step on my journey. It aims to give aspiring Paralympians a taste of what it’s like to compete on the biggest stage of all. I had competed at a World Cup event earlier that year, so I was beginning to think more about the Paralympic Games, even though watching the competitors at London 2012 made me think it would just be amazing to get a point off them, let alone reach the podium.

Dimitri, Piers and Oliver on the podium at Tokyo 2020

After 2012 I started competing more and more. Motivation was easy as I really enjoyed that climb to the top; having something to chase. Once I became world number one in 2015 that focus had to change. Subconsciously it’s hard to keep the same level of motivation, and that was especially true after Tokyo 2020 when I won gold – the first wheelchair fencing gold for ParalympicsGB since Caz Walton won in 1988. Winning that medal after 12 years of hard work, blood, sweat and tears, brought out a lot of emotions. Now it’s all about making myself better.

Of course I’m also really lucky to have such superb teammates – Dimitri Coutya and Oliver Lam-Watson - on the programme. We share the same great coaches, Peter Rome and Glen Golding, and we are all searching for the tiny percentages. We are really lucky in that we are best mates and that has undoubtedly helped us achieve so much as a team too.

The last 18 months have been surreal, and more than I could ever have hoped for. Winning Paralympic gold, then completing the set with my first European title – having missed out on gold by just one point on the last two occasions – has been amazing. It was definitely a goal to hold all titles at once. There’s always that little niggle at the back of your mind – will you do it?

Fencing has given me so much and I’ve changed as a person too. It’s great for people who aren’t traditionally in to sport; it’s all about finding what sport suits you. Once you find what hooks you it can take you anywhere. I’m definitely proof of that.

Find a sport to suit you and loads more on Parasport.org.uk

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