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Millcreek Journal

First-time Paralympian returns from Tokyo inspired and ready to excel

Oct 04, 2021 01:42PM ● By Daniel Olsen

Shelby Jensen competes with her red, white and blue mask at the Paralympics in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy Shelby Jensen)

By Daniel Olsen |

If fencers drew straws to choose matchups, Paralympian Shelby Jensen got the short one.

“All opponents are challenging but the best opponent I faced was Amarilla Veres,” Jensen said about the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, held this past summer after being postponed a year. “I fenced her to 15 points and only got five on her and she went on to win the gold medal for Hungary.”

The 20-year-old Jensen, facing the best fencers in the world, was able to assess where her game was at this early stage of her career.

“I learned I need to pick up my speed,” Jensen said. “I need to be more aggressive. I did a lot of passive movements and defensive things. My opponents were more aggressive.”

As one of the younger Paralympians in Tokyo, Jensen learned a lot during her first experience. While she didn’t medal, she had an incredible experience there and hopes to have similar experiences in Paris (2024), Los Angeles (2028) and Brisbane, Australia (2032).

Jensen, who lives in Millcreek, trained with Brandon Smith prior to the Paralympics, but he was not able to travel with her to Tokyo. Due to the pandemic, only one coach was allowed to come. That was the Team USA head coach for parafencing Mickey Zeka.

Zeka said he likes to work with people who have a strong work ethic. “I have spent the last two years coaching the national team. It was a big success helping Shelby and the others to qualify for Tokyo.

“Shelby really improved a lot in the last three years,” Zeka said. “All players with a disability have some big challenges. It’s hard as a coach to find a way to help them be better. They work hard so they can get there. It’s tough to train athletes with disabilities, but we are happy to start getting good results.”

In addition to experiencing the Paralympics, Jensen was able to have the once in a lifetime experience of exploring Japan and living in the Athlete’s Village. 

“Once I walked through the village and spent time in places, it was amazing to see all the athletes from different countries,” Jensen said. “The energy throughout the village was charged with the dreams of all athletes. I made a new friend. Roomed with an archer girl. She is the best.  We hit it off right when we first met.” 

Preparing for and attending the Paralympics wasn’t easy after COVID-19. With the games postponed a year, plans needed to be adjusted.

“Because of the COVID we did online lessons,” Zeka said. “That really boosted our chances because we prepared our athletes. Most couldn’t go to clubs to train because of COVID. It was tough to give them online lessons every day. When clubs started opening, they got to go back to them. We had a training camp in Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center that really helped us prepare for the Paralympics.”

Once they got to Tokyo, it was a challenge to have only one coach there in person.

“I was the only fencing coach that got to go for Team USA,” Zeka said. “Even before the Olympics I went to every single World Cup. It was helpful because of my experience in that field. I tried training them for the last few years and that has good results. We want to catch other countries. It’s like trying to catch a rabbit. We haven’t yet but we are trying.”

The sport of fencing is tough as it is a contact sport that requires a large amount of dedication. 

“The time I put into it and the passion I have for it is why I want to do it until I can’t anymore,” Jensen said. “I have drive and passion. Many of the participants are multiple-time Paralympians. Some faced off in Beijing in 2008. Terry Hayes, who is 63, is on our fencing team. It was fun to have one of the oldest and youngest Olympians on our team.”

Jensen will take September off and then have surgery on her foot. Then, she will start going back to train a couple times a week in November and December as she works to keep her spot for the 2024 games.

“The first step is Paris and then LA,” Zeka said. “We need to start chasing points to give us an opportunity to go to Paris. Next year everything starts to count. We hope to repeat our appearance on the big stage like we did in Tokyo. I hope to go one more time to Paris and then LA too. After that, we will see. It’s a big stage and totally different from any other World Cup. Only the best players are there, so it’s really hard. That’s the beauty of the competition of the games.”

Jensen and the other athletes in parafencing may inspire the next generation of athletes. 

“I hope that Shelby and our other athletes give inspiration to other people to join the parafencing community and try to chase that dream of joining us in Paris and LA,” Zeka said.