Thursday, September 8

The Tip of the Blade

by Mindi Epstein 

If you were to see a blond teen-age girl roll into the JCCholding a long canvas bag stretched across her wheelchair, you likely wouldn’t know what her purpose was in coming to the JCC, as she does diligently most every evening. Nor would you be able to guess what was stashed in her odd-shaped bag. And, for sure you would never recognize that this pretty 15-year-old girl is a rock star on the world-stage of fencing.

Meet Cat Bouwkamp.

Cat is by no means an ordinary teenager. In early August, she won a gold medal in foil at the Wheelchair Pan American Championships in Campinas, Brazil. That win qualified her for the Paralympics in London, 2012. It also made her the youngest member of Team USA and one of only 100 male and female wheelchair fencers from around the world to compete in the Games. Overseas, where fencing is an enormously popular sport, the crowds cheer for our very own Cat Bouwkamp.

Alan Bouwkamp, her father, describes his daughter as a “come from behind fencer.” Just when her opponent is about to “write her off,” he says, “she comes back.” Cat’s a fighter. Always has been. Despite being born with a short leg and scoliosis and enduring numerous surgeries, Cat never hesitated to pursue anything that caught her fancy. “We never limited her,” Alan explains. “Janet and I never told her she couldn’t do it.” Cat,who is ambulatory, learned to horseback ride. She played tennis and soccer. She did gymnastics. Alan and Janet watched their daughter conquer one sport after another, but wheelchair fencing was different. “We were hesitant about it and asked her if wheelchair fencing was really something she wanted to do.” With her sights clearly set on fencing, Cat responded to her father’s expressed concern with, “Dad, that’s your issue.”

Cat took up fencing when she was 9 years old. Early on, her skill caught Val Kizik’s attention, her instructor and president of IndySabre. With more than 25 years of experience, Val has coached numerous young adults to success. He fondly recalls some of his club members who made varsity at Notre Dame, New York University, the Air Force Academy and University of Austin. Coach Kizik knows a winner when he sees one. He invited Cat to train with his fencing club at the JCC and the rest, as they say, is history. At the age of 13, Cat took the Bronze Medal at the Wheelchair Fencing World Cup in
Warsaw, Poland.

Coach works with the athlete so frequently that Alan describes their relationship as that of “an old married couple.” They may bicker, a hair or two may bristle, but Val coaches his protégé to achieve success in a match as much as in life. Cat’s next challenge comes in October when she heads to the World Championship in Catania, Sicily to improve her seeding in the Paralympics.

Early on Cat had set her sights on making the Olympic team and she did it. She has marked this achievement with a beautifully designed tattoo of the Olympic rings and fencing sabres proudly sported on her left calf. Her parents may not be crazy about their young daughter bearing a tattoo, but they understand Cat’s excitement and are enormously proud of her. "Anyway," Alan admits, "it's a really nice looking tattoo." 

For Cat to have achieved so much before her sweet 16, one has to wonder what else she has in mind. I “aim big,” says Cat. Clearly, qualifying for the 2012 Paralympics is just the tip of the blade. Cat is already thinking about making the U.S. team for the Paralympics in 2016, and has begun exploring colleges where she can continue fencing. Whether it’s Notre Dame, Brown or Duke she eventually selects, she sees medical school in her future. So, the next time you see Cat roll through the doors of the JCC, give her a high five. This young athlete is at the top of her game, and that’s only the beginning.

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