Fencing community adjusts to a new face

David Anderson

The story behind Daria Jmill is perhaps as uncommon as the sport in which she participates.
Ten years ago, a car drove over Jmill’s legs as she was crossing a street. The accident left her unable to walk.
While unable to stand, Jmill took up an unlikely sport: fencing. She was reluctant to confront her tragedy — she still doesn’t like to talk about the accident — but said fencing was the incentive that gave her the motivation to rebuild her life.
“Getting into fencing is something that forced me into getting a wheelchair,” Jmill said. “If I wanted this sport, I would have to be in a wheelchair.”
What’s even more uncommon is that, unlike the majority of wheelchair fencers, Jmill fights against people without disabilities in mobile bouts.
Jmill, 53, a resident of St. Paul, has been living on disability since her accident. She is currently working on a new cleaning system for vehicle tires for which she hopes to get a patent.
While the norm for wheelchair participants is to engage in “stationary” fencing, Jmill said that, from the beginning, she had no intention of letting her disability get in her way.
“I never envisioned myself doing (stationary fencing) before I even started,” she said.
Although Jmill had seen a fencing demonstration before the accident, the idea of fencing never occurred to her.
Her decision to opt for fencing, as opposed to popular wheelchair sports such as tennis or basketball, was mostly pragmatic: She wasn’t good at those sports.
“I just thought fencing was something I could learn to do reasonably well,” she said.
In the spring of 1992, Jmill contacted Roberto Sobalvarro, head coach of the Twin Cities Fencing Club, to see if he could teach her how to fence.
“She didn’t want (the rules) to be changed to suit her disability,” Sobalvarro said. “I found that very admirable.”
But Jmill’s ambition did not please everyone in the fencing and wheelchair communities. Jmill has encountered a number of skeptics since she started fencing. For instance, she got very negative responses when she first approached other people about fencing in mobile bouts.
“There’s some resistance and some negative attitude in the wheelchair community,” she said. “I think they have no imagination, no initiative.”
Jmill signed up with the Minnesota Sword Club, then with the Twin Cities Fencing Club, before finding a home with the University of Minnesota Fencing Club last fall. Though she faced problems with being accepted at the other clubs, she was well received at the University fencing club.
“Fortunately, in this gym, people are open to more ideas,” she said.
Jmill uses a wheelchair for transportation, but her legs are not completely paralyzed. She uses her right foot, as well as her left hand controlling the wheel, to propel herself up and down the fencing strip.
“It’s amazing how much skills she developed in keeping up with the rest of us,” said Amy Larsen, a University College student and member of the University’s fencing club.
Jmill said she is always working on improving her skills. She attends practices two or three times a week. She is unsure, however, whether she wants to compete outside of practice.
The United States Fencing Association does not allow wheelchair contestants in its mobile fencing tournaments, but Larsen said Jmill could take part in non-USFA competitions.
Fencing against people without disabilities does create a number of positioning problems.
Ron Frazzini, who has coached at the Twin Cities Fencing Club and at the University’s club, said opposing fencers have to work through positioning details in order to face Jmill. Fencers have to adjust their aim when facing someone in a wheelchair.
Jmill also had to make adjustments. She’s contacted Harry Broadfoot, an equipment manager for the Minnesota men’s hockey team, to find hockey masks to protect her throat.
Despite the few problems which she said she still has to solve, Jmill has accomplished at the University’s fencing club what few people thought possible when she started fencing. She’s overcome her disability, and now she’s fencing in mobile bouts — something not everyone thought she could do.
“We treat Daria just like any other fencer within the club,” Larsen said.
Jmill said fencing is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she feels really good after practice. On the other, fencing aggravates her injury and increases the pain.
Despite the drawbacks, fencing offers Jmill a chance to express herself in spite of her disability.
“I’m doing this for myself, for my health, for my well-being,” she said. “It’s necessary. If I didn’t fence, I think my brain wouldn’t work.”