Jonny Willis talks about how his parents helped him to become a world class epeeist.
GB Epeeist Jonny Willis is GB’s number one epeeist. In 2007 he won the Heideneheimer Pokal - and became the first British fencer to win a world cup event since 1981. He currently trains in Heidenheim where he is preparing for the World Championships.
Jonny dedicates a week every summer to work with talented young fencers at the National Academy. And many aspiring young fencers follow him on his annual Haverstock Summer Training Camp – an event which has become an institution in the epee training calendar.
When the Parents Group wanted a leading fencer to talk about how parents can help their children to fence it was therefore an easy choice to ask Jonny to give his views. Characteristically he was keen to help.
My dad was never a fencer, he was a rugby player. But this didn’t stop him believing that he was a tactical genius when it came to advising me at sword play. To be fair he was pretty good and no doubt helped me a lot at the side of the piste when I first started to compete, however he did have a problem trying to use the correct fencing terms, and we ended up creating our own fencing language. I have no doubts other fencers or coaches never knew what my dad meant when he said I should try a ‘double-rumble’ - our code for a belistra-lunge.
|"I was not the best fencer in my age group as a cadet but I think I had the most supportive parents and if you don’t have the support of your parents at that age you can’t make it. "|
From the very beginning, my father was always there at the end of the strip for me when I fenced. I came from a small club called Stockport and my old coach, Andy Vincent offered me the deal when I was 15 that he would coach me for free but wouldn’t travel to competitions with me as he liked his family life at weekends. My family was different and I think my mother wanted my father out of the house at weekends so we travelled all over the country doing as many Opens as possible, using them not only for ranking points, but for training and gaining competition experience.
I think that’s why I have won over 50 domestic open events so far in my career, winning is a habit and I felt comfortable on the finals of the Heideneheimer Pokal because I had fenced so many finals domestically. I gained pretty much all my experience as a young fencers from UK Opens, something I could not have done if my dad wasn’t willing to provide the transport – week in and week out..
I was not the best fencer in my age group as a cadet but I think I had the most supportive parents and if you don’t have the support of your parents at that age you can’t make it.
That doesn’t mean ‘pushy parents’, my dad never made me fence, it was a case of encouragement and giving me the opportunity to fence as much as I wanted. My mother too only cared that I was happy and enjoying myself. Personally I love fencing, the training and the competition.
It not all about money either, my dad is a retired postman and while I do not come from a wealthy background my whole family made financial sacrifices and along with the help of friends and bodies like The Epee Club I was able to attend competitions. However it was the backing of my family that made the difference. My dad always took me training and often stayed to watch, he always took me to competitions and my brother and sister went without and supported my efforts for which I will never really be able to repay them. And my mother put up with my ‘down-moods’ on a Monday after the high of a Sunday competition. She also made the best mature cheddar cheese & Marmite sandwiches around, something the GB men’s epee team can vouch for.
It was instilled into me at an early age that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose so long as you have done your best. I have carried this philosophy with me throughout my career. I work on the theory that I’m happy regardless of if I win or lose as long as I fence well. That’s not quite the current UK Sport of British Fencing line but there is so much in fencing you can’t control, that’s the nature of a combat sport, but if you get yourself right, physically and mentally, then fight a good fight you can’t ask for more. Also I find I win more than I lose when I’m in good form and happy.
My father always made me behave myself on the piste, I remember a few telling offs when I failed to do this. In return he was always there for me at the end of the piste, win or lose, to catch my mask when I threw it to him and for a ‘High-5’ at the end of a fight. I think we became a little double act much to the amusement of other fencers and referees.
Now I’m very much grown up (in fencing terms) and live and train in Germany. However this doesn’t stop my father calling me on Skype on a nearly daily basis to offer me his thoughts on my fencing (though this is I’m sure to get out of house work). Bearing in mind he has not seen me fence apart from maybe once a year for the last 6 or 7 years, it winds me up so much as my fencing has moved on from the days of the Shropshire Open etc. However my mother always reminds me he just wants the best for me and if it wasn’t for all the sacrifices he made when I was learning my trade I would never have been able to achieve anything close to what I have.
I’ll end this piece by repeating what I said earlier as I believe it is the most important feature of my fencing life. I was not the best fencer in my age group when I was younger, I did however have the best and most supportive parents.
Senior World Championship 2001, L32
My whole family had travelled to the South of France to watch me fence at my first Senior World Championships. I had made it through the poules and DE on the first day to the L64 starting on the second day. I then beat a world top 16 fencer and went on to the coloured pistes in the finals hall. My mother, brother and sister were in the crowd and my dad took what he considered to be his normal place at the end of the piste in the coaches’ box. It was the first minute break and I was losing 3-2 to the German Oliver Lucke. Walter Steegmüller, the then German National Coach, now Performance Manager of German Epee and one of the finest fencing minds in the world walked out to coach his fencer. My dad, armed with a towel and water bottle, strided proudly out to me. “Any ideas son?” He asked, “No” I replied shaking my head, “Any ideas Dad?” I asked hopefully in return. “No Son” he replied. We looked at each other, laughed and then spent the next minute chatting about the weather to make it look like we knew what we were doing! Looking back it was scary how naive I was, I went on to lose that fight and Oliver Lucke went on to finish 3rd.
The Parents Group has written a parents charter to help parents at the piste side. We left out the double rumble, but we hope you'll find it useful anyway. Click on useful documents to download.