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With a sudden burst of energy, fourteen-year-old Jason Draper lunges toward his older, more accomplished opponent and brings his sword crashing down. There are two minutes left in the match, and the five-foot four-inch, hazel-eyed teen faces an almost insurmountable challenge. He's down fourteen to eight.
A mere arm's length apart, the pair locks swords in midair. They duel for domination, each trying to calculate and anticipate the other's next move. Any nervousness Jason might feel is hidden by a stainless-steel mesh mask that covers his face and neck.
With hawklike precision, Jason spots an undefended gap, swoops past a gloved hand, and scores by jabbing the tip of his two-pound épée into his opponent's white suit.
This might sound like any other event during the United States Fencing Association's Summer Nationals, which are being held at the Miami Beach Convention Center this week.
But it's not. Jason is one of just six male fencers who do battle in a wheelchair. He's the only teenager. He is also paralyzed on his right side, and relies largely on one lung for oxygen.
The nationals, which conclude July 8, are expected to draw approximately 6000 participants, 10,000 spectators, and $23 million to Miami. An Olympic sport since 1896, fencing has long been dominated by the French and Italians, though fifteen-year-old American Rebecca Ward, who competes at the convention center this week, took gold last month at the Las Vegas World Cup. For a lucky few, a victory in Miami might lead to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Watch a video of Jason Draper at the U.S. Wheelchair Fencing Nationals
Wheelchair fencing was developed in post-World War II England by Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a neurosurgeon who is largely credited with founding the Paralympics. The sport, which was introduced at the Rome Olympic Games in 1960, is today practiced in more than 24 countries.
Bouts are much like those of able-bodied athletes. Foil, épée, and saber are all separate competitions. Combatants wear vests that electronically record hits. To win, an athlete must either score the most at the end of a three-minute bout or be the first to reach five points.
There are differences. Wheelchairs are clamped to the floor and do not move. The competitors wear floor-length wire skirts to prevent lower-body injury. They aren't grouped by age, but by degree of disability. Category A athletes have good trunk control, agility in their chairs, and arm strength. B fencers possess fair sitting balance and a normal fencing arm. C fencers have no movement in their torsos and little control of their arms. Some in this group need their blade strapped to their hand to keep from dropping it.
According to Sharon Everson, head referee for the Miami tournament, wheelchair matches can be as fast-paced as the world's best because of the fighters' proximity. "It requires a lot of balance, strength, and endurance," says 58-year-old Everson. "It gives these disabled athletes the chance to focus on what they can do, rather than what they can't."
Jason Draper competes as a category C fencer, but he didn't begin life in a wheelchair. "When he was born, the doctors said he was completely fine," says his pretty, warm, and bubbly mom, Rhonda Bleck. "He was a happy, healthy little boy.... He even started talking early and everything."
When Jason was six years old, he began complaining of aches and breathing problems. "We took him to a hospital, and the doctors found he had a tumor on his spine that was affecting his nervous system."
A slew of tests revealed several tumors with such long and complex roots that surgery was impossible. Then doctors learned of a tumor on Jason's right lung and had to perform an emergency tracheotomy. "He coped with it a lot better than we did," says Rhonda, gazing adoringly at her son as he whizzes about with his baby brother in tow. "The tumor on his spine grew worse and began severely affecting his nervous system. Things got harder as he got older. He ended up in a wheelchair about three years ago. That's when we started looking for things to get him active; the physical therapy is so boring and monotonous."
The Blecks, who home-school their four children in Seattle, researched wheelchair sports for Jason. They first tried tennis, basketball, and ice hockey. "I'd never heard of it," Rhonda says of the last. "But apparently it's like a sled that you're strapped onto and you push yourself along on the ice with these sticks. Crazy, right?"
Adds Jason's father, Patrick Bleck, running a finger through his salt-and-pepper hair: "The potential for some serious danger was, yeah, a little too much."
Then in fall 2005 a Seattle-area home-schooling association asked the Blecks whether they wanted to enroll their kids in a neighborhood fencing club. Jason immediately took to it. "He has been really positive," says Patrick.
Seattle-based coaches and veteran fencers Serge Timacheff and Kevin Mar -- owners of the Washington Fencing Academy -- agreed without hesitation to accept Jason as a student. Thirty-eight-year-old Mar, who was lured by the sport as a youngster because he "always wanted to be a pirate," had refereed wheelchair competitions before and decided to draw on that experience. "He's a great kid," Mar notes, just as Jason speeds past in his chair and playfully mows into the back of his legs. "Exactly, see, we'll smack each other around. He might be understated, but don't let him fool you!"
Jason's diminished lung capacity and surgery have saddled him with an almost inaudible voice that barely registers a hoarse whisper. "I liked it because in fencing you get to hit people," Jason grins, with his mom squatting by his side.
Mar and Timacheff began training Jason to increase his upper body strength: "With able-bodied fencing you can rest your arm, bounce away from your opponent," demonstrates Mar, "but not with wheelchair fencing. In a way it's harder."
Adds the curly-haired Timacheff: "[Jason is] a C-level fencer fencing A-level guys because there are not enough people out there, and he's giving them a hard time. He's coming close enough to being a world-level competitor. Give him a few more years."
Jason's family is supportive. They made Miami their summer vacation destination so he could compete in the nationals. This past Saturday he took on 50-year-old Curtis Lovejoy, a four-time Paralympic medalist, who has won more than 40 golds in wheelchair fencing competition. Lovejoy dominated the first minute, but Jason stayed close, amassing eight points to his opponent's fourteen.
With 1 minute 55 seconds left, Jason scored a point. The numbers on the scoreboard changed, and the two stopped for a moment. The referee glanced over his left shoulder at Jason, then at Lovejoy, and boomed, "En garde!" The two crossed swords, and a tinny clang echoed through the crowded hall.
"Ready?" continued the ref. "Fence!"
Jason nestled his right hand on the rim of the wheel for balance and support as Lovejoy thrust forward. Jason blocked it. Lovejoy lunged again, but this time the teenager lacked the swiftness and agility to defend. As the sword tip bent into the young man's white jacket, the scoreboard recorded a win for the veteran: fifteen to eight.
As the victorious Lovejoy removed his mask, Jason extended a hand.
The seasoned fencer has inched closer to a spot on the Paralympics squad. "I don't really know who will make it," he democratically whispered after the fight. "They are all good and they all deserve to go."
Jason's future depends on the progression of his illness. His father says doctors have warned that the boy's condition could worsen. "Things could plateau when he stops growing," Bleck shrugs, "but at this point we just don't know."
With that, the scruffy-haired youth rolls out of the fencing area and heads off to the medal ceremony, family in tow, -- baby brother hitching a ride on the back of his big brother's wheels. The tumor on his spine began affecting his nervous system. Things got harder as he got older.