Terry Hayes, who goes by “Scooter” among friends, settled into her custom-made wheelchair. Thick black straps kept her feet and thighs tight against her seat so that she wouldn’t fall out, which Hayes admitted has happened before.
Freda Grout, Hayes’ wife of 20 years, was on her knees behind Hayes, stabilizing the wheelchair to hooks mounted into the fencing area.
Once Hayes was secured, Grout helped her gear up for practice. Together, they covered Hayes in all white. She was suited up in a chest protector, jacket, knickers, gloves, shoes and hood.
Her opponent was a fellow fencer at the Southwest Florida Fencing Academy, who has complete motor function in his legs. For fairness’ sake, he sat in a plastic lawn chair and wielded a foil weapon.
Hayes pulled her hood down over her face and waited for the referee’s mark.
Terry “Scooter” Hayes practices foil fencing at Southwest Florida Fencing Academy. pic.twitter.com/x3Cb6fCPue
— Victoria Alvarez (@audiotori) April 10, 2019
“Fencing is like a mental chess game,” Hayes said. “You have to anticipate what your opponent’s going do before they do it so you can counterattack.”
Hayes is recently retired, so she spends nearly all her time practicing for tournaments and world cup competitions.
Before Hayes became a fencer, she was a special education teacher helping preschoolers learn motor skills and independency. Before her teaching career, she served in the U.S. military as a heavy equipment operator.
In 2011, Hayes was diagnosed with primary cerebellar degeneration, an incurable but treatable neurological disease. The nerve cells deteriorated and died in her cerebellum, the area of the brain that controls coordination and balance. Now, she’s paralyzed from the waist down.
“I walked like I was drunk, and I would have to hold on to the wall to walk; and, then, I started falling a lot,” Hayes said. “One thing led to another, lots and lots of doctors, lots and lots of specialists. I’ve been in a wheelchair now two and a half years.”
After her diagnosis, Hayes went to a sports camp for disabled women. Her love for sports was born from her desire to maintain her freedom. Fencing seemed like it would be good fit because she could do it in a wheelchair and with one arm, since one of her arms is weaker than the other.
“I didn’t know how good I’d be at it, but I figured, ‘What the heck? I can try,’” Hayes said. “It just looked so cool to me, and I thought, ‘I really wanna try that.’ And, then, when I started getting really decent at it, then, I was like, ‘I really love this.’”
She admitted that the hard part was finding a fencing coach that was even willing to train her.
Eventually, she finally got in contact with Charles Johnson, the coach at Southwest Florida Fencing Academy. He had never taught anyone in a wheelchair how to fence, so Hayes was his first.
Johnson made sure the academy provided everything Hayes needed for accessibility, like hooks, wheelchair ramps and rails in the bathroom.
Hayes is a member of Team USA Wheelchair Fencing and the eldest member at 60. She’s competed all over the world, in places like Canada, the United Arab Emirates and Georgia.
Hayes’ wife says the goal is to get to the Paralympics in Tokyo in 2020.
"She’s really given it her all to get to go to the Paralympics,” Grout said. “I know it’s really tough for her and, you know, she gets tired. She just never gives up, you know. She keeps on going.”
The next step is to secure a spot with the Paralympic team.
“So, I’m just making the best out of the waist up because that’s what I got left, so I’m just working with what I got,” Hayes said.