Portland's Wheelchair Fencing Champion

Who: Leo Curtis, a wounded Iraq War veteran who now pursues global glory on wheels

By Zach Dundas August 1, 2013 Published in the August 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Daniel Root

“I was in the army for 21 years, and in Iraq in ’03 and ’04. I was a sergeant attached to the 101st Airborne, on convoy duty near Fallujah. We hit got by an IED. My right ankle is fused. My left ankle had to be reconstructed, so one knee is missing its tendons—now they’re in my ankle. I had a traumatic brain injury and spinal injuries. 

“At first, I was pretty much housebound. I was depressed, I was gaining weight. I just didn’t have much to do. But my 12-year-old son has been fencing for about 18 months at PDX Fencing, where the coach, Charles Randall, coached a two-time national champion. And in the course of getting him to his regular training, someone at the club said, hey, there’s wheelchair fencing, too.

“I started out unranked, of course, but now I’m 38th out of 63 ranked fencers in the world in my category. I’m the only wheelchair fencer at our club, but I get the same coaching as anyone else. The able-bodied fencers sit down in chairs to fence me, and I work out four or five days a week.

“I can basically do anything that anyone can do—I just have to modify things. I participated in a program with students at the University of Oregon's Portland Product Design program to create new equipment, and I'll take what they created to my next competition. One is a customized cushion that will help fencers who lack core muscle control. One is a foot pedestal that makes the chair adjustable for different leg lengths. Nothing like these have been seen before in the sport.

“It’s been a pretty gangbusters start. I finished the US season no. 1 nationally—that was my first year. I’ve competed in Montreal, in Italy—it’s been a whirlwind experience. When I think about it, it’s incredible. I’ve lost 75 pounds. But usually I’m so busy concentrating on what’s next that I haven’t even absorbed what’s happened since I started. When I travel, I fly in on a Wednesday and spend pretty much the whole time either studying the competition or fencing. You don’t have time to be a tourist. That would not add up to winning.

Leo Curtis will compete in the World Wheelchair Fencing Championships in Budapest, Hungary, Aug 7–12.

Editor's note: This story originally inaccurately described the University of Oregon design program, and has been corrected. Portland Monthly regrets the error.

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