For fencer Tori Isaacson, dealing with injury is a small price to pay in sports.
A committed fencer and avid horseback rider, Isaacson played sports throughout her childhood, despite recurring, painful muscle contractions and frequent dislocation of her joints. Some coaches dismissed her problems as the result of inferior athletic ability, while others were determined to figure out how to help.
“My softball coaches just thought I couldn’t throw a ball, while my fencing coach realized I was hyperextending my elbow and that’s what was causing my problems,” Isaacson said.
While competing in a fencing tournament in 2015, Isaacson suddenly collapsed to the floor in pain in what she describes as a “pseudo-seizure” response to debilitating pain in her neck.
She later discovered that she had crushed nerves in her neck, leading to a diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). EDS, a rare genetic condition affecting about 1 in 250,000 people, can cause one’s bones to shift and crush nerves. It does not normally present itself until adulthood.
“When I was younger, I dislocated my elbow a lot and had weird, nervous ticks,” Isaacson explained. “A lot of people wouldn’t know to look for symptoms of EDS.”
Isaacson’s EDS continued to progress after that tournament, and it became nearly impossible for her to continue able-bodied fencing.
“I started having neuropathy in my legs and in my back, so I couldn’t really lunge anymore and I was starting to shake more and more,” she said.
Rather than give up fencing entirely, Isaacson’s coach Eric Soyka suggested wheelchair fencing.
“We weren’t really thinking about it being super competitive or anything like that,” Isaacson said. “But finally having accommodations that I never had in any other sport, Eric really started to see, and I really started to see myself improve a lot in the sport. Because when you give disabled people accommodations, they can really thrive.”
Isaacson began to build up her wheelchair fencing skills in 2018, coinciding with her study abroad trip to Singapore, where she continued private lessons in wheelchair fencing. Unlike able-bodied fencing, in which it is most common for a fencer to compete in one of the three fencing weapons, wheelchair fencing requires athletes to compete in at least two weapons to qualify for the national team.
Isaacson had been trained in epee as an able-bodied fencer and picked up foil for wheelchair fencing. The basics of each weapon are relatively similar, Isaacson explained, but the challenge is assuming a different frame of mind when fencing each weapon.
“They’re almost like two different sports,” she said. “Eric and I will do an hour epee lesson and then an hour foil lesson where we’re working on completely different ideas.”
For Isaacson, wheelchair fencing itself felt like a different sport compared to able-bodied fencing. Both are extremely mental sports, often described as “physical chess,” and Isaacson had to completely revamp her strategy when she began wheelchair fencing.
“When I was an able-bodied fencer, all of my actions were leg-based and I was constantly moving in and out of distance. I was going for the foot, which was no longer an option for me because wheelchair fencing is only from the waist up,” Issacson said, referring to the fact that the target area for able-bodied epee fencing is the entire body. “Now instead, I was stuck in distance and had to use my torso to get away, and rely on my blade actions instead using my legs to set up a distance-based attack.”
Isaacson’s hard work paid off, as she began to win medals on the national level and began competing at international tournaments. But the mental challenge of fencing can be taxing, and at her last World Cup in February 2020, Isaacson said her mental health issues took a toll on her results.
“Your mental health for sports is really important because you can be physically fit, physically have the skills and technique you need, but if you’re not one hundred percent mentally there, you can just fall apart at the littlest thing,” she said.
When she returned to the U.S., Isaacson had more time to work on developing her coping skills — even as she balanced creating a new training regimen with earning her Ph.D. in occupational therapy at Quinnipiac University.
She could no longer train in person at the Colorado Springs Olympic and Paralympic Training Center, nor could she engage in fencing classes at the Phoenix Center in Poughkeepsie, New York, where she trains with Soyka.
But Isaacson kept a positive attitude towards her new situation, relying more heavily on going to the gym and socially distant lessons with Soyka than fencing other students. She also began working with Sandra Marchant, a coach, successful fencer, and friend who lives near Quinnipiac.
While working with three different coaches may be overwhelming at times, Isaacson is thankful for the opportunity.
“Having multiple coaches’ points of view keeps me on my toes and gives me an edge,” she said.
Isaacson’s ability to adapt and persevere has allowed her to achieve great heights in wheelchair fencing, with goals as high as earning a spot in the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games. It’s a realistic goal that she looks forward to reaching, but admits it was a hard journey to get to where she is today.
“I heard a lot when I was younger from male coaches or boys growing up that I would never be a good athlete because I had disabilities that no one knew about yet, or just because I was a girl that couldn’t run fast,” Isaacson said. “You don’t have to run fast. You’re good at sports. Don’t let other people tell you what you can and can’t do, go and do it.”
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