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Parafencer hopes to break a 50-year drought

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A woman in a wheelchair practices fencing with a mannequin.

Stephenie Rodríguez started competing in Parafencing just a year ago and is now about to make her Paralympic debut.

If she wins selection, she will be the first Australian woman to compete in fencing at the Games in more than 50 years.

The 54-year-old got her start in the sport when she came across an advertisement for a new development program at the New South Wales Fencing Association.

“I always thought fencing was cool,” he said.

“Fencing is a beautiful sport, it requires extreme discipline and a lot of training.”

Initially, when Rodriguez’s coach suggested she try to qualify for Paris, the Sydney player only saw a mountain to climb.

Rodríguez has had a rapid rise in wheelchair fencing.(ABC News: Ryan Liddle)

“I don’t have six to 12 years in the sport to self-realize, as happens to some of the young fencers,” Rodríguez said.

“Knowing that there was only one possibility, about the possibility of reaching Paris, I thought: I’m going to run.”

Rodríguez began attending international fencing camps and competitions, working with other Parafencers to improve his skill and sportsmanship.

He began building his ranking to put himself in a good position to win a wild card entry.

Wild cards are awarded to a male and female fencer who have not had the same opportunities as other parafencers to accumulate points for two years.

To be considered for a wild card, fencers must compete in eligible competitions and show improvement, before being nominated by their national federation.

I’m bionic

Rodríguez, who is also a businesswoman, became disabled in 2019 after contracting cerebral malaria while traveling for work.

He was in a coma for two weeks and both legs were amputated.

“I made a very difficult decision: to become a bilateral above-ankle bone anchored amputee,” Rodriguez said.

“So, I’m bionic.”

Osseointegration involves the integration of a metal implant so that a prosthesis can be connected directly to the bone.

Not knowing other disabled people, one of the reasons Rodriguez got involved in fencing was to meet other amputees.

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Although Rodríguez uses prosthetics in his daily life, he competes in a wheelchair.

In Parafencing all athletes use a wheelchair, which is fixed to the ground.

This gives athletes freedom of movement and makes the sport as fast as its able-bodied equivalent.

“I think it’s harder than normal fencing,” said NSW Fencing vice-president Duncan Fairweather.

“You are anchored very close to your opponent, which means you have to react quickly.”

Opening doors for the next generation

Rodríguez competes in saber and epee and will find out in June if he has won a wild card for the Games.

“I take good care of myself and work very hard on the things that matter every day to stay positive,” Rodriguez said.

Closeup of the back of a fencing jacket with the words Rodriguez, Aus.

Rodríguez seeks to get a wild card for the Paris Paralympic Games.(ABC News: Adam Wyatt)

“I want to train as much as I can to become the best athlete and the best fencer I can.”

And his Paralympic campaign is inspiring others to take up the sport.

Fairweather said Rodriguez is the best performing player Australia currently has and the NSW Parafencing development program wants to produce many more like her.

“We are very proud of her and impressed by her performance,” he said.

“We are making a huge effort, not just here in New South Wales, but across Australia, to improve our competitive position.”

Rodriguez is eager to see the next generation emerge through the program, with the aim of developing an impressive team for Brisbane in 2032.

“It’s a very welcoming community and we have different under-11 divisions for the kids and of course the seniors and veterans who fence against each other,” he said.

“It means a lot to me to help be a pillar of Australian parafencing by opening those doors.”

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