Sit and deliver.
That’s what Penn’s newest fencing coach teaches his athletes.
Five-time Serbian national fencing champion Mickey Zeljkovic was introduced to the wheelchair version of his sport as a coach in his home country. One of Zeljkovic’s fencers injured his leg during training camp. Although another coach wanted to send the student home, Zeljkovic instead began to work with him in a wheelchair.
“That was a really, really great experience for me,” he remembered. “And for him also.”
From that moment on, Zeljkovic developed a passion for working with the disabled and with a group of students willing to put in the long hours necessary to master the sport.
“I like to see in my students that they are willing to learn and willing to fight,” Zeljkovic said. “They work really hard. They come maybe three times, four times a week.”
When Zeljkovic moved to the United States in 2008, he formed a wheelchair program at the New Jersey Fencing Alliance, where he worked as a coach. The program, which was the first of its kind on the East Coast, had eight students, the youngest of which was 10 years old.
“It takes three or four years [of] working with a student [before they are good],” Zeljkovic said.
In able-bodied fencing, the players step back and forth on a narrow strip, attempting to score a hit on their opponent. In the wheelchair version of the sport — which traces its roots back to injured WWII veterans — a wheelchair is attached to a stationary frame. Besides that slight difference, the two sports are essentially the same — a mental and physical endeavor that some refer to as “physical chess.”
“It works your mind and body,” said Mario Rodriguez, a veteran wheelchair fencer and coach, who has faced Zeljkovic in competition.
According to Rodriguez, the wheelchair fencing community is small — somewhere between 200 and 500 people — but “growing by leaps and bounds.” He says the sport can be excellent for physical rehabilitation, as well as for socializing and competing.
“Basically, you’re going against the grain,” he said. “You’re literally throwing your center of gravity out of the chair … It’s something that can take a lot of time to master.”
In order to teach the sport, Zeljkovic sits in a wheelchair himself. This helps level the playing field as he instructs.
“I have the same mobility as my students,” he explained.
After moving to Philadelphia when he took the job as a Penn assistant last season, Zeljkovic had to give up wheelchair coaching regularly. Nevertheless, he still consults for the U.S. National Team and works with Tariq al Qallaf, an adult world champion and his most talented student.
Zeljkovic would like to start a club in Philadelphia, but for now, it’s a pipe dream. The frames can cost up to $8,000, and that’s in addition to the thousands of dollars every fencing club spends on weapons and protective gear.
“If you open a club,” he explained, “You really really need to have support.”
Still, Zeljkovic is hopeful. He has plans to visit local hospitals to explore the possibility of starting another program soon.
Until then, he sits and delivers.
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