Fencer Catherine “Cat” Bouwkamp compares her sport’s strategy to “high-speed chess."
Similarly, when there have been obstacles in her life -- and she’s had some big ones –- Bouwkamp, 16, has always been able to make the right counter moves to remain an elite athlete.
In the past few years, Bouwkamp has had to switch hands, stances and weapons, and has gone from competing as an able-bodied fencer to a wheelchair athlete. Last August she became one of the first U.S. athletes to earn a berth to the 2012 Paralympic Games in London this summer.
Bouwkamp’s biggest hurdle came at birth, when it was discovered that her right leg was 2.5 inches shorter than her left. She was born with a club foot and was diagnosed with Fibular hemimelia, or shortening of the fibula. The condition also contributed to her developing scoliosis in her spine.
Bouwkamp had her first surgery at nine months, to try to correct the effects of being born with a club foot. The second major operation, when she was 10, was to cut the growth plate in the longer leg so the shorter one could catch up. It stopped the growth in the right leg. Her third operation, at age 14, finally fixed the limb-length discrepancy. It involved severing the bones in her calf, and inserting a metal rod and an external apparatus that had to be adjusted daily. The bones were moved apart each day and new bone grew in, thereby lengthening the leg. Bouwkamp still can’t run and walks with a limp, but she has made great improvement.
Despite her health issues, Bouwkamp, who is a sophomore at Fishers High School (Fishers, Ind.), grew up trying a wide variety of sports –- from ice skating to horseback riding and more. At age 9, she signed up for a fencing class at the local YMCA.
Her parents, Alan and Janet, had no background in the sport and neither did anyone else she knew.
“I was always the kid who wanted to do things no one else would try,” Bouwkamp said. “I saw the class and thought, ‘Oh, sword fighting, that sounds like fun.'"
Val Kizik, who was teaching the class, immediately noticed Bouwkamp’s fearlessness and advanced reflexes. He invited her to come watch the fencers at his Indysabre Club in Indianapolis.
The coach liked Bouwkamp’s aggressiveness and determination. But because of her shorter leg, she had trouble lunging forward with her right side.
Bouwkamp switched to her left hand, using her stronger left leg out in front. “It was pretty difficult,” Bouwkamp said. “But I already had the basics of the sport down. I knew what to do.”
Making the transition easier was Bouwkamp’s ambidextrous gifts. She writes and throws with her right hand, but she dribbles and shoots a basketball with her left. In softball, she’s a switch-hitter.
Armed with her new stance, Bouwkamp trained primarily in sabre, one of three weapons in fencing along with foil and epee. She quickly earned a national ranking in her age group, twice finishing in the top seven in national championships.
But as she got older and moved into the under-12 competitions, she began to struggle. “Her speed was not progressing,” Kizlik said. Said Bouwkamp: “Everyone else got better, and I was falling further and further behind.”
That realization in 2009 forced Bouwkamp’s next big adjustment –- competing from a wheelchair. Bouwkamp continues to be mentored by Kizik, who had never taught the wheelchair version of the sport, but she added a new instructor in Les Stawicki, the U.S. National Fencing coach for the Paralympics.
In this type of competition, the wheelchairs are locked in and not allowed to move. Kizik said Paralympics fencers have to be tougher mentally because there is nowhere to hide.
Bouwkamp said she was “apprehensive at first” about the transition, but that it was made easier by her competitors.
“There are hundreds of able-bodied fencers,” she said. “But in wheelchair fencing, it’s a small community. We are all good friends -- except when we’re on the strip. Then we are complete enemies.”
Seven months after making the switch, she won a bronze medal in the sabre at the International Wheelchair World Cup in Warsaw, Poland. She was competing against much older fencers, some of whom even had children her age.
“It was ridiculously intimidating,” said Bouwkamp, who was 13 at the time. “But when I won my first couple of bouts, they looked at me wide-eyed like, ‘Who is this girl?’ “
After the competition in Poland, she won a gold in sabre and also medaled in foil and epee at the North American Cup in Pittsburgh in 2009. In 2010, she again won three medals at the North American Cup in Dallas, including gold in the sabre and foil. She even won a World Cup event in Montreal shortly after her third surgery, competing with a coach’s jacket over her leg to conceal the screws, pins and rods protruding from her skin.
Since sabre, in which fencers employ a slashing motion, is not featured in the women’s Paralympics, Bouwkamp has transitioned to foil and epee, where thrusting motions are used to attack.
Bouwkamp handled the change seamlessly as always, winning a gold medal in foil at the 2011 Pan American Wheelchair Championships in Sao Paulo, Brazil, by beating rival Sylvie Morel of Canada -- who had defeated Bouwkamp in their previous two bouts -- in the final. The victory qualified Bouwkamp for her first Paralympics, which will be held Aug. 29-Sept. 9 in London. She is nine years younger than the next oldest fencer on the U.S. Paralympics team.
Bouwkamp is aiming to become the first wheelchair fencing gold medalist for the U.S. But fencing, which has already taken her to countries such as France, Spain, Poland, Brazil and Canada, is not the only focus in her life.
She also volunteers for her church, St. Peters United Church of Christ. The institution has a sister church in Cincinnati, where Bouwkamp spends two weeks a year helping underprivileged kids. Bouwkamp said she never forgets those children and keeps pictures of them with when she travels to competitions.
“We all have ‘woe is me’ moments,” she said. “But it’s great when you get a chance to put away all the problems you think you have so you can help people who have it so much worse than you.”