From novice to world number one in the space of five years – you could be forgiven for thinking that the fast track to success has been kind to Brazil-bound wheelchair fencer Piers Gilliver.
Yet there have been no shortcuts on the road to Rio. As recently as 2015, the Paralympics gold medal contender from Gloucestershire was relying on the generosity of his family, friends and donors in order to prove himself at elite level across the globe. British fencers had been granted more than £500,000 by UK Sport ahead of London 2012 but the failure of a seven-strong squad to secure a podium place between them at their home Games meant that the sport missed out altogether when the government body distributed its funds for the next four-year cycle.
Gilliver, 21, battled on, driven by the experience he gained by watching his peers from the sidelines at ExCeL, one the venues used in the capital city, as a then-member of the ParalympicsGB Inspiration Programme. He became the first Brit ever to win a World Cup fencing event in September 2014 when he triumphed in Warsaw, Poland, and went on to complete a golden hat-trick in the series in the series inside eight months, adding the Hong Kong Grand Prix title for good measure.
His stunning form saw him recognised as a World Class athlete by UK Sport and he was added to the list of funded athletes, meeting his training,coaching and competing costs through to Rio 2016 and paving the way for a move to the top-class facilities at the University of Bath. The faith placed in Gilliver's ability certainly wasn't misplaced and he is now ranked as the best in the business in men's category A epee, the heaviest of the three weapons used in wheelchair fencing. He is also the national champion in the other two, foil (lightest) and sabre and his inevitable selection alongside Dimitri Coutya in a two-man British fencing team for the Paralympics was rubber-stamped in early July.
Reflecting on the journey that took him there, Gilliver said: “I had quite a long qualification period, which lasted over two years. It started in 2014 and my first gold came in the first event of qualification. I then won three in a row. My form was strong back then and it has carried on through. In training I have progressed a lot and managed to get to world number one after the European Championships [in 2015].
“The funding situation was tricky after London and the team had to fund trips to competitions in places like Hong Kong ourselves. The support I had from friends and family really means a lot. I then received UK Sport funding, which doesn't cover all of the costs because elite sport is pretty expensive, but my personal sponsors, Gradwell Communications and BMT Hi-Q Sigma, have really helped with things like paying for additional training sessions and purchasing new equipment. It is difficult to put into words how grateful I am to them for their help.”
Gilliver splits his time between Bath, where he trains alongside Bath Sword Club members and the Pentathlon GB squad, and his home village of Drybrook in the Forest of Dean.
He has been a full-time wheelchair user since 2007 due to Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a collection of heritable connective tissue disorders, and an undiagnosed neurological condition and discovered fencing at his local Cotswold club three years later when he began looking into the sporting opportunities open to him.
Although fencers cannot move back and forth with their wheelchairs fastened into metal frames on the floor, there are no restrictions to upper body movement and, in epee, points are scored for hits anywhere above the waist. Gilliver fell in love with it straight away, describing it as “a fast, exciting sport that challenges the mind as well as the body” and put a college course in fine art on hold once he was earmarked as a future star by ParalympicsGB.
He added: “It is a sport I was always interested in before I was in a wheelchair. I joined my local club and went from nowhere to national champion in 2012, so it was amazing. Competing at London 2012 was far too early and never really possible due to the short timescale involved, so Rio 2016 has always been the Paralympics I have been aiming for.”
Wheelchair fencing was added to the Games schedule 56 years ago but Great Britain have failed to win a medal in the sport since Caz Walton claimed one of her ten Paralympic golds in the epee at Seoul 1988.
Gilliver appears to be in a prime position to end the drought. He boasts nine podium finishes in 12 international competitions over the past two years and a year ago took silver behind China’s Gang Sun at the World Championships in Hungary, losing 15-14 after an epic contest in the final.
“It is surreal but pretty amazing to think I have a shot at a gold medal,” said Gilliver, whose lead coach is Coventry-based Peter Rome.
“Britain have won medals in the past but it is a long time since the last one, although the new generation has progressed the sport a lot and are pushing the boundaries. The level is increasing all the time.
“I am so happy to be part of the ParalympicsGB team for Rio 2016,” he added. “Many years of hard work has gone towards achieving this goal and I’m pleased that all the hours of training have paid off.
“I’m going to make every second count before I head out to compete in Rio as it’s going to be the biggest competition of my career so far. I hope the nation will supercharge the team to personal best performances – their support will make all the difference.”