Piers Gilliver: Wheelchair fencer faces uncertain future

Piers Gilliver
Gilliver is currently ranked eighth in the world in the epee division

Becoming the best in your field takes hours of dedication, hard work and training - not to mention a considerable financial outlay.

But how difficult is it to try to get to the top in elite sport without lottery funding?

Britain's number one wheelchair fencer Piers Gilliver recently created history by becoming the first Briton to win a Grand Prix title in the sport, but the 20-year-old does not receive any UK Sport funding and admits that he faces an uncertain future as he aims for the 2016 Rio Paralympics.

"I really need the support because I believe I can win a medal in Rio," he told BBC Sport. "It would be incredibly frustrating to miss out, not because of my skill, but because I don't have the financial backing."

Wheelchair fencing was given £552,892 in the build-up to London 2012, but the seven-strong team failed to win a medal and it missed out when it came to distributing funds for Rio 2016, meaning Gilliver and the rest of his GB team-mates have had to battle hard on and off the piste to make an impact on the world stage.

Gilliver, who hails from the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, started the sport in 2010, three years after the connective tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome left him as a full-time wheelchair user, while he also has a currently undiagnosed neurological condition.

His biggest achievement came in September's Grand Prix in Warsaw, Poland where he shrugged off any financial concerns to put in one of the performances of his young career to win gold in his favoured epee division.

Epee is the heaviest of the three weapons used in the sport and points are scored for hits anywhere above the waist. During a contest, the fencers' wheelchairs are fastened into metal frames on the floor meaning they can use upper body movement only.

On his way to winning in Poland, Gilliver defeated world number two Roman Noble from France before a dramatic win over home favourite and world number one Dariusz Pender in the final.

And the Briton admits that his recent success has given him plenty of encouragement with Rio less than two years away.

Wheelchair fencing facts
The sport was developed by Sir Ludwig Guttmann at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, the birthplace of the Paralympic Games, following World War II.
It has been part of the Paralympic programme since the Rome 1960 Games.
There are three different weapons used - foil (lightest), sabre and epee (heaviest)
Fencing wheelchair frames are designed so that athletes can compete against each other whether they are right or left-handed.
Athletes' wheelchairs are fixed in place to the ground by metal frames and the chair is clamped to both sides of the frame to keep it from tipping. An athlete's foot must not leave the chair's foot rest or use the floor for advantage.

"Two years ago I was watching those guys at London 2012 and hoping to get a couple of points off them when I played them, but to be on the piste and beat them to win gold is amazing," he said.

"It was a huge achievement - not just for myself - but also for GB because it shows we can do it, despite the funding situation and it is a great step forward.

"It has been a big struggle but thanks to my friends and family, who have been a massive support, I have managed to raise some funds but that money will only last until the end of this year and I have no idea what I am going to do after that.

"There is another series of competitions next year, including the World Championships, and I am confident in how I can do but the finance makes it a difficult situation.

"Wheelchair fencing isn't like other sports where you can you do it on your doorstep, you have to travel to training and to competitions, which take place all over the world and it is expensive, especially at the level I am at now."

Gilliver splits his training between his local club Cotswold Fencing and with Bath Swords Club and, in addition, travels twice a week to work with his coach Baldip Sahota in Milton Keynes.

Like so many elite disabled athletes, he knows the sport has made a massive difference to his life.

"Having a sport to focus on and get involved in was hugely important to me," he said. "Once I was in the chair I wasn't active and when I got into fencing it allowed me to push the boundaries of what I could do and it has given me so much and improved my life hugely.

"I've progressed so fast in the last two years that I now feel that success is no longer a dream - it is an achievable goal.

"It has taken a lot to get this far and now I am getting such good results, to be without that funding is soul destroying."

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