In late October, freshman David Xu took up a sport. In December, he won three national medals. By February, Xu had decided to train for the sport’s Olympic equivalent, the Paralympics.
The sport is wheelchair fencing, a version of fencing in which athletes compete in a stationary wheelchair frame.
The trick to David’s remarkable rise? He had already competed in regular fencing for years. During that time, he quietly honed the specific skills necessary for the disabled version of the sport. And when he finally converted to a wheelchair, he was already excellent.
“Everyone’s pretty excited for him,” senior captain Evan Prochniak said. “Normally, he wouldn’t be able to travel with the team, but now he has the part of the sport that he can excel at.”
Xu was born with a missing fibia, rendering him essentially immobile without surgery. Shortly after birth, his doctors amputated his left foot and, since then, he has used a prosthetic.
In high school, he took up fencing. It was a logical choice. He needed a sport — a way to “get out of my chair sometimes” — but his prosthetic leg kept him from competing in athletics like track that involved too much speed.
He worked at it, developing whatever muscles he could. Fencing consists of quick lunges and back steps up and down a narrow strip. He concentrated on the arm work that could make up for his missing foot. As he fenced, he faced his right side towards his opponent, dragging his left leg behind him.
“Lunges took some extra effort to get working,” Xu said.
By senior year, Xu was captain, and his high school team captured the New York City championships. But competitively, he was hitting a wall.
“I was doing all right, but I got killed by the faster kids.”
Xu’s high school coach told the national Paralympic fencing coach about him. The Paralympic coach, in turn, forwarded his name to Mickey Zeljkovic, an assistant coach for Penn who also works part-time with wheelchair fencers. When school began, Xu joined the team as a walk-on.
In late October, Xu began training in a wheelchair with Zeljkovic and one of his students, Tareq al Qallaf, an adult world champion.
“Mickey said practice is going to be 10 times harder, maybe a hundred times harder than competition,” Xu said. “ I got to practice with [Qallaf] a few times and, oh man, he’s good.”
Still, Xu was ready. Years of relying on arm work had prepared him for the stationary sport, and his essentially normal mobility was an advantage. When he competed in the national tournament, he won a bronze medal in epee and a silver in foil and sabre. In the latter two weapons, he lost only to Qallaf.
One of the other fencers complained to a coach, “This is not fair … If he leans back, I can’t reach him.”
“I didn’t really have a response. I’m grateful for what mobility I have,” Xu said.
Xu does have an advantage in national competitions, where there are no distinctions in regards to mobility — unlike international competitions, where fencers are split up in different mobility classes.
The freshman, who is temporarily out of commission because of a lingering shoulder injury, would like to train for the 2016 Paralympics, which will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But to do so, he will need to compete extensively in international competitions, particularly during his junior year.
“I got into Penn for grades …It’s something I have to keep in mind,” Xu said.
But that does not stop him from thinking about his potential competitors.
“The Chinese team is ridiculous … not to mention Tareq.”
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