Jon Willis

Question & Answers

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Below Jon Willis answers some questions about his fencing career put to him in media interviews, by his friends or the general public. If you have a question for Jon, please contact him via the website.

When did you start fencing?

I started fencing in 1993 when I was 12 years old at Hazel Grove High School. It was an after school club on a Friday afternoon run by Bob Merry, who became my first fencing coach. I think it worked out at £1 per session. People like Bob are the cornerstones of fencing in this country, selflessly running brilliant introductory courses at a nominal charge. If only my travelling and training expenses were still the same.
 
What was the appeal?

I’m not sure. There is something very pure about fencing, as a one to one combat sport. Just about every child plays with plastic swords and knows how much fun it is to thrash their family with them. In competitive fencing, you are trying to defeat your opponent using your skills, physical abilities and tactics. Some people say it’s like physical chess but in fencing you can take as many moves as you want without necessarily having to wait for your opponent to think about a response. The sensation of fencing at a furious tempo but feeling every split second as if in slow motion is absolutely exhilarating. I still really enjoy fencing every time I step on the piste, whoever my opponent may be.
Is this why you chose to specialise in fencing?

Yes. I loved sport but hadn’t really excelled at it in school. However, within my peer group of fencing beginners I gained initial success fairly quickly. I like winning and when you win it makes you want to carry on working hard to achieve more success. By the time I was 15 and starting to understand what fencing was about, I was completely hooked. I wanted to fence for Great Britain and compete at the highest level.

When did you become a full time athlete?

After graduating from University I was a trainee accountant, working 9-5 weekdays and studying for exams in the evening. I was training for fencing before work in the mornings and again in the evenings. My results seemed to be going backwards and some days I found myself falling asleep at work if I had a particularly hard morning session. Something had to change and I knew that I had to give up one or the other. At that time, B&Q were operating a sponsorship scheme for elite athletes allowing them to work part time, whilst getting a full time wage and benefits towards their sport. I applied and was successful. It was a dream chance and with the backing of my family and friends I quit my job and effectively became a full time fencer.

What differences did full time training make?

To start with it put a lot of pressure on my performances. There is a huge difference between fencing for fun and it being your profession. I had to get used to the fact that my results mattered not just to me but also my employers. B&Q provided a lot of support for their athletes and I particularly remember having a 15 minute chat with Ellen McArthur on her boat; she was part of Team B&Q and helped me put things into prospective. Indeed, I look back at that as the turning point in my fencing career.

In terms of performance, being part of Team B&Q allowed me to train at times that suited me and rest properly between sessions. I was not only training harder but I could train smarter. Modern sport science offers a range of techniques and programmes to enhance performance but there are no short cuts, it is hard work and a long haul. With the time and space to take it all in, every training session became purposeful and progressive. I began steadily to improve, way beyond the level I had previously been at.

What is your biggest achievement in fencing?

Most people would expect me to say winning the World Cup event in Heidenheim in 2007. I think I was the first British fencer to win a World Cup event in 27 years and I’ve been told I’m the only British Epee fencer to have won two World Cups in total (I’m not 100% sure of that but my Mum says so). However, whilst HDH was a truly memorable result and a wonderful experience, so was winning the North West U-14 non-electric foil series when it happened. Everything is relative to effort and expectation at the time. It’s funny that if I’ve had a great lesson or a good sparring session, it still affects my mood much the same as when I was starting out as a club fencer at Stockport.

Recently, I took a lot of satisfaction from winning my third British Title. I had missed the previous years comp because of my injury and had a tough time regaining form. In some ways British épée fencing has a more physical aspect than continental fencing. You certainly don’t get to the final of the British Championships without hard fights and a bit of a battering. I felt that it finished off my come back very nicely.
 
What and how bad was your injury?

I tore my hip labrum in February 2009. It was a massive set back because while I managed to carry on for a short time and complete the World Cup season, it had got to the point where I could no longer run and even walking any distance was painful. An operation was the only option and it was carried out in June 2009. Fortunately, the surgeon, Mr Richard Villar, had top rate blade control and the staff at The Wellington Hospital were superb.

I was on crutches for 6 weeks and I missed the 2009 British Champs, Europeans & World Championships. After about 2 or 3 months I started my rehab and worked really hard with my physio, Andy Byrne. I can remember it hurting lots and worrying the operation had not worked despite constant reassurance that everything I was feeling was perfectly normal. I then started slow running again, armed with the twilight audio book series on my iPod, initially only 30 seconds before walking for 4½ minutes four times. The ration would increase if I completed four days pain free. I remember how happy I was when after a few months I was finally able to run for 20 mins non-stop. My rehab went really well, thanks to my physio’s help and the support I got from friends and family. I now never take a training run for granted and, to be honest, there’s little that I enjoy more than a paced run through the fabulous scenery around Heidenheim.

I resumed fencing five months after my operation and in December 2009 competed at the H&W Open where I struggled to reach the semi-final. I didn’t like this so contacted the German National Coach and asked if I could go out and train with him for a week before Christmas. It seemed to do the trick because 4 weeks later I went on to win the first World Cup of the season in Kish Island.

Why did you decide to move to German to train?

A long story. I have always been a Stockport Fencer. I started there was I was 15 years old and Andy Vincent coached me as a novice epeeist through to World Cup level.  Although there was often pressure to move, I did not wish to relocate to London and felt that my training partnerships in the North West, both with Andy and UK Sport, would allow me to compete and progress.
 
When my funding was later withdrawn, full time training in the UK became untenable.  Indeed, when I then picked up an injury it looked as if my whole fencing career was over. The Heidenheim Board learnt of my plight and very generously invited me to train in Germany if I could get back to fitness. I accepted gratefully and the prospect of coming out here certainly spurred on my rehab. The Epée Club very generously helped with a grant that tided me over and in March 2010, once I was up and just about running, I made the move. British Fencing have also since been able to get me back on some funding, which is great.

What is life in Germany like?

I love it! I still struggle with the language and continue to take lessons. I have made lots of new friends and the club has welcomed me with open arms. I now live with one of my team mates approximately 300 metres away from the fencing centre. The relationship with the club is superb and very much two way. I receive top class coaching and training here and in return I try to help German youngsters out with my experience as a full time competitor and with the strength & conditioning side of the sport. I actually think that on strength & conditioning for fencing, Great Britain is currently ahead of Germany. It’s great to find I have something to offer and the enthusiasm of the cadets here is something else.

Is it true the German Cadets call you Jonny English?
 
I know no fear. I know no danger. I know nothing.

What are the differences between training in Germany compared to Great Britain?

Fencing in Germany is a well resourced and mainstream sport, with the sort of structure and support which tennis has in the UK. The club here in Heidenheim is central to the daily routines of the athletes and offers all the facilities you need, as well as a professional staff. There are purpose built fencing pistes as well as a gym, physio and canteen all of which I can access 6 days a week. The atmosphere is supportive and inclusive; everyone is working together for success at every level. When we travel to competitions we all meet at the fencing centre and travel in the club mini buses. The sense of belonging to a team which is supported by and part of the community gives a real motivation to my fencing. I have really tried to adopt the lifestyle and Club ethos.

What are your fencing goals?

I’ve always wanted to go to an Olympic games. When I was very young I saw the Seoul Olympics on TV and thought I wanted to be a part of that. I never really gave it another thought until I had started to achieve some success and tuned in at some daft time to watch Olympic fencing on the television (before the internet, the Olympics on television were pretty much the only time every four years you could see top flight fencing on screen). Since then Olympic qualification has been the driving factor in my fencing. When London won the Olympic games and fencing started to receive funding it became a real possibility. Everything I now do in fencing is aimed towards participation and success at the 2012 Olympic Games.

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