A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting one of
my new favorite people. And all because one of my co-workers set a box of
toffee flavored shortbread cookies in the middle of the conference table for
our 10am meeting….
His name is Rick Zengler. He’s an adventurous, sporty guy. The guy from the
high school wrestling team. The guy you see with the football team. The
competitive swimmer. He now trains for six to seven hours a day, including a
five mile run as well as conditioning and a few hours of drills. For
what? He’s trying to kick ass all the way to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Jeneiro to compete in
the showy, medieval combat sport of fencing. And unlike most people, he rolls from point A to point B instead of
walking. That’s because an illness he’s had since childhood, cerebral palsy,
has left him in a wheelchair. But this person doesn’t act like
he got “left” anywhere.
I had my questions too. I had to meet him.
Rick is an upbeat guy who didn’t know much about wheelchair fencing either
until this February. After seeing
MurderBall, a 2005 film about a team of paraplegics who play full-contact rugby, and
smash each other all the way to the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece, he was
inspired and determined to channel a similar passion to take his body and his
experiences to the limit. He began research to see if a “Murderball”
team was available in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. He didn’t find that,
but he found the Shepherd Center, a spinal injury rehabilitation center,
and skimmed their list of available wheelchair sports. There are basketball, soccer, waterskiing, and softball among others. And then wheelchair
fencing jumped off of the screen. Being a history buff, and with an affinity
for historical recreation, he’d played with swords even before he knew he could
make it a sport.
He signed up for classes and jumped right in. Right into
ground zero: the Shepherd center is, in fact, home of the first wheelchair
fencing team in the United States, the inaugural team having been founded there
in 1996. He took it upon himself to
learn all he could about the sport. He knows a lot about this sport. A lot.
In a mask and protective gear, he uses two out of three
fencing weapons—the foil and the epee. “Most wheelchair sports are watered-down versions of the
able-bodied sports,” he says, explaining that it wasn’t so with wheelchair
fencing. The able-bodied guys think they are crazy, in fact. “They can use
their legs to get out of the way. We can’t. We’re locked in at a distance of
blade-length. You can lean forward. You can lean back. But that’s it.”
“So is this isn’t Murderball-lite?” I ask.
“No, it’s Murderball HEAVY.” He says.
Rick’s first few practices left him sore in places he didn’t
know he had. Apparently, as artfully graceful as this sport seems, it ain’t for
the weak. I asked him if he’d always tried to be as close as he could to sports
and if it was a struggle to do so. After all, he was the water boy for his high
school football team. (There’s no way you can be out there in a chair.) I had
it all wrong. “No, I just wanted to be a regular guy. All my friends were on
the football team.”
In fencing, Rick is competing with people that have been trained
in this combat sport for fifteen years. He has been training for less than a
year. It doesn’t seem to bother him. He said that in general, “I take bigger risks, because what’s
the worst that can happen? I’ll break my neck and spend the rest of my life in
a wheelchair!” He jokes, but he has a point. “Being in
a wheelchair made me who I am. You don’t have to play the hand you’re dealt in
life. You can bluff your way through it.”
Not only is Rick a wheelchair fencer… but he also has a
bachelor’s degree in hospitality management. And that was after a help desk
career for the Department of Defense that bottomed out after 9/11. When no work in the hospitality field
could be found in Atlanta, Rick started Wheelingchef.com to sell his culinary
creations online. He makes the delicious shortbread cookies that I mentioned at
the beginning of my blog. He noted
that his degree was not in baking, so, like the obscure sport he can’t learn enough about, he had to teach himself how to do that too. “I’m
multifaceted. More than most,” he says.
So he bakes too. And he’s baking these cookies all the way to the Olympic
games, selling them to all who will purchase to support his trips to the three
competitions that will lead him to the qualifying National Cup this year in Reno.
He now has his sights set on the first round of competition in Cincinnati. He wakes up every day and kneads
the dough for his baking chores later on in the evening after his training. Kneading the dough has become part of
the training for him, exercising his fingers and hands for greater control of
the weapon he deftly swings around.
So this is Rick. He’s excited about life. He was an open book when I talked to him. He’s candid about being in a wheelchair–the fact of which isn’t an earth-shattering revelation to him since he’s grown up in one. It just seems shocking to others sometimes. The day I spoke to him, he’d finished a 5-mile run and arrived at a QT gas station. It was raining hard. Someone nice had tried to hand him an umbrella, feeling sorry for him. Nice and all… but how’s he supposed to hold it while he wheels himself around? And thus continues most of the able-bodied world’s misunderstandings and underlying guilt. He takes it all in stride. “I could write a book about all of the interactions I’ve had like that.”
I’m proud to have met him, and thrilled that he is such an open person. I love to share personal stories, and am honored to share part of his (as this is just the tip of the iceberg.)
If you want to support him in his sword-swinging adventure, share this story. Visit www.wheelingchef.com and purchase some cookies. Write him and offer him a verbal high five. I’ve been having a couple shortbread cookies every morning with my coffee. The toffee ones are the best.
Rick’s cookies are $5 a dozen, and cost $5 to ship. A bargain. Email him at the link at the bottom of his page, and he will invoice you through PayPal. All you need to provide is your email address (for the PayPal invoice) and order details.
More info on “seated fencing.” The cute picture alone is worth your click.