Writers : Nozuko Poni and Nicola Daniels
Photographer: Edward Vermeulen
Before writing this article, my knowledge of fencing was as limited as my knowledge of dissembling a ticking time bomb! The only thing I was certain of is that I had never seen a person of colour do it. Then I met Christen Matthews…
The 18 year-old is a national athlete and founder of Manenberg Blades, a fencing club for under-priviledged children in the crime and poverty stricken district of the Cape Flats in Cape Town.Looking at the wall filled with medals, trophies, and certificates in her home and hearing the passion with which she speaks, it’s hard to believe that this girl accidentally stumbled into a fencing rehearsal five years ago while running away from detention. “I walked past and saw everyone in their kits, fighting. It looked so cool”, she said
Christen, who comes from the trouble-plagued hood of Manenberg, had always known she was destined for bigger things but didn’t know how she would get there. “Looking around my neighbourhood, I saw drug use, teenage pregnancy and violence, and vowed to myself I would not be part of the statistic. Fencing for me became that saviour”, she said. “I got a scholarship to study at Christel House (a school for the underprivileged) because of my potential and financial need. That’s where it all started”.
She credits the sport for having opened her mind up to aspire for greater things, and her coach Randall Daniels for being a constant support system. Randall, a former fencer, started fencing clubs and coaching after seeing that there weren’t many children of colour taking an interest in the activity, and that people weren’t aware that there were programmes in place to get the disadvantaged into the sport even though it’s expensive (fencing kit starts at R3000). “I’m very passionate about development fencing and even though it takes so much of my time, students like Christen and others like Wanda Matshaya [who competed in the Olympics] make it worthwhile.”
“This sport requires commitment and discipline, and I have learned those things from my coach who is always there for support and also helps me toughen up in the face of challenges,” said Christen, who also coaches weekly at her old high school.
Her experience over the last five years has given her travel opportunities around Africa. She is currently in Senegal involved in a year-long training program that she started at the beginning of December 2011. “Fencing South Africa saw that I was involved in development fencing more than I was in competing. Also the success of my project, Fencing Cape Flats, convinced them,” she said, explaining why the organization assisted her with the opportunity in Senegal.
The sky is the limit for this fencing maestro and it looks like that’s where she is headed.When Christen comes back she will be the youngest qualified coach and the only certified female coach of colour. “My ultimate dream is to have more fencing clubs for the underprivileged and get the sport out there so that more people know about it. And not just from the Zorro movies!” she laughed.
Interested in fencing and wanna know if there’s a club close to you or how you can get involved? Check out these websites:
Facebook group – Fencing Cape Flats
Randall Daniels is Kristen’s coach and mentor. Like Kristen, he initially got involved to keep out of mischief (and had no clue what fencing was). He’s been in the fencing industry for more than 20 years.
Today he offers himself as a development coach. He makes no money but finds reward in being able to change the lives of young people who may not have otherwise had the opportunity to access and excel in fencing. Daniels is constantly busy setting up new clubs, discovering future Olympic stars and continuing to help people of colour (still rare in fencing) break boundaries.