Kyle resident Gary M. van der Wege is preparing for a trip to London this summer as one of a select group of athletes who will compete in the 2012 Paralympics.
To get there, van der Wege will compete in several World Cup fencing events. While his flight to London will be paid for by the U.S. Paralympic Committee, van der Wege must pay his own way to the other events and training camps.
When he began the fundraising process, his goal was to aim about $10,000. He has so far raised about $4,000.
Sean Claes, communications chairman at Kyle United Methodist Church, said he and his wife wanted to help van der Wege after learning that he has to fund his own way to the competitions.
"I went to church and said, 'Let's throw a benefit for him,' and tried to get as many people in the community involved," Claes said. "Because how many times does Kyle, Texas, have an Olympian?"
Curtis Hardy works with van der Wege at the San Antonio Fencing Center and has known him for nine years, also working as van der Wege's coach for the past year and a half.
"We are trying to keep him healthy right now. We are trying to work on his stamina, then we are going to start working a little bit as far as strategy," Hardy said.
Hardy said van der Wege is active in the community through the Wounded Warriors program, and participates in benefits for children's programs, Hardy said.
"He does a lot and gives back to the community. Maybe the community this time around can help him achieve his goals of the Olympics," Hardy said.
Kyle United Methodist Church hosts a Road to London Benefit from 6–9 p.m. March 30. The event will include a dinner, silent auction, live music and a fencing demonstration by van der Wege.
"We are trying to do all we can to show our support and love for Gary," Claes said.
The price of the pasta bar dinner is a suggested $6 donation.
"If you are not able to make the $6, come out anyway. If you can give more than $6, that will be fantastic because it takes upwards of $10,000 to make the trip to London," Claes said.
An accomplished fencer, van der Wege took up the sport at the age of 9 to emulate his two older brothers.
"I used to watch the old 'Zorro' TV series and I used to play with stick swords and all of that," van der Wege said. "Once I got into it as a sport, I just realized it was such a great combination of a physical workout coupled with a real fun mental game that goes with it. We sometimes call it 'physical chess,' because it's very much like having to outsmart your opponent while physically beating them."
As an adult, he worked full time as a theatrical set designer, taught technical theater classes and fenced in his spare time. At one point, he was ranked 75th in the nation.
A motorcycle accident in August 1992 landed van der Wege in the hospital for two months and left him with limited mobility in one of his legs. It was four months before he could walk with a cane.
"I found that it was really kind of an emotional lifesaver for me, because it became part of my therapy, my rehab," van der Wege said of the sport.
Van der Wege said he knew he would not fence professionally anymore, but the sport remained a big part of his rehabilitation. He began giving lessons as a way to participate, and said he considers his switch to becoming a full-time fencing coach his midlife crisis.
He began coaching Texas State University students while still using a crutch, and after a while began to officiate and referee matches nationally.
"In the process of making myself kind of get back on my feet to do this, I also found that by learning how to give lessons to other people, that was a big thing for me. It gave me a sense of something to do," he said. "I couldn't do what I used to do, with my theater work. It kind of eased the transition for me a lot."
Transition to wheelchair fencing
Van der Wege said it was difficult at first for him to deal with the permanent physical changes his body went through after the accident.
"Your body has changed and you kind of have to accept that," he said.
Meeting other wheelchair competitors and hearing their life stories has put things in perspective for him.
"I feel like my story is nothing compared to the success stories of other people," van der Wege said. "I am so very fortunate that I am walking after my accident."
While van der Wege was officiating at the U.S. Nationals in 2000, Les Stawicki, a U.S. national wheelchair fencing coach, approached and introduced him to the idea of fencing in a wheelchair.
Originally, van der Wege said, he was hesitant to participate in wheelchair fencing because he said he thought it was unfair "fencing against these—in my brain I am thinking 'people with disabilities,'" he said, "The first tournament I did, they kicked my ass really bad."
Van der Wege competed in the A category, meaning he was among the most mobile of participants. He said it is a very tough category because competitors are so physical.
In a wheelchair competition, the wheelchairs are secured to a metal plate. Competitors are at a set distance from each other and are unable to move away like competitors who fence while standing.
Van der Wege said he quickly learned it was a different game that moved much faster than traditional fencing. Because a fencer cannot move away from an opponent, seated fencing is constant infighting, he said.
It took him a year to adjust his way of fencing to be on par with other competitors. He has since won six national championships as a seated fencer.
This will be van der Wege's second trip to the Paralympics, though he did not win a medal when he competed in 2004 in Athens. At 56, he will be one of the oldest competitors, but said he does not let age deter him.
"I am not putting that much pressure on myself. All I can do is do the best I can. Hopefully [I can] show a little bit that hey, us old guys, we can still hang with the kids," van der Wege said. "If they have to worry about me, that's good."
After the Paralympics, van der Wege will return to coaching in San Antonio and said he wants to finish his master's thesis on coaching for seated fencing. Completing the thesis will allow him to become a Maitre d'Armes, or fencing master, with the United States Fencing Coaches Association.
In the meantime, van der Wege maintains his perspective on his sport.
"You really have to fence people that are better than you to improve. It's kind of like a big life lesson—you can't win every time you go out," he said. "I tell the kids a lot of times, Muhammad Ali didn't win every single boxing match. Babe Ruth didn't hit a homer every time he went to bat. You just kind of have to learn and grown with it and realize that some days will be yours and some days won't."