Fencing is a sport that reveals a persons inner beast, while at the same time requiring them to focus, maintain control and concentrate. It is reserved just for the strongest of the personalities. It’s them who can deal with the rollercoaster of emotions that fencing provides. Elke Lale van Achterberg can be grateful for all the good that happened in her life thanks to this discipline. Wheelchair fencing has strongly shaped her personality, allowing at the same time to let go of personal fears and cure her depression. Most young people identify amputation with irretrievable loss of plans, dreams and future. That wasn’t a case for Elke. This seemingly lost world just opened up and became something else.
Paulina Królak: Before the pandemic you have started this season in 14th place in foil and in 21st place in epee. How would you summarise these competitions?
Elke Lale van Achterberg: I have been dealing with some injuries last year, I’ve now recovered after a long rehabilitation process. The competition in Eger was important, partly because I wanted to test the state of my body condition. I’ve been practising hard on new elements for the past 6 months and I wanted to try this out – I think I actually did a great job of that. I can see things went well and I now know the elements where I still need to improve.
I have heard that you have been practising artistic gymnastic before the amputation. Do you think that the gymnastics and fencing have something in common?
These two sports are completely different. The only similarity I can think of, it is the elegance in the movements. Fencing is all about fighting, however like gymnastics there is elegance in the movements, the flexibility of the movement is very glamorous to watch.
Why did you decide to start a career in fencing?
I have suffered from a chronic disease since the age of 11. I have always been used to participate in various sporting activities, however being in a wheelchair made it much more difficult. I was depressed as a teenager, between the ages of 12 and 13, I could not enjoy anything as I had been dealing with a terrible nerve pain and I spent most of my time in hospital for tests and check-ups. I was bullied at school. I just needed something for myself in my life. During this time I realised that I need to participate in sport again, despite my disability. The first sport I tried was fencing and I fell in love with it. I knew that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life! It helped me with my depression. Simply, it made me happy. Fencing is the reason I am still here!
You describe fencing as an elegant discipline with a beautiful history and traditions. Why do you love this sport?
Fencing is an inspiring synergy of everything you can have in sport – the technique, the movement, the fusion of force flexibility. It’s a fast sport but you need to know when to slow down. You need to predict your opponent’s next move and follow your intuition. The combination of all of these things makes the sport so great to me!
You only train with pedestrians. That is what you call fencers who do not have a disability. What benefits do you see from such trainings?
I do not have any opportunity to train with other wheelchair fencers in the Netherlands. Training with non-disabled fencers can cause some potential issues, as able-bodied athletes aren’t used to the wheelchair and they way it moves. Nevertheless, it is a good practise to train inclusively as they do things you do not expect. It sharpens your skills and forces you to try out the new solutions.
How do you feel when you hold a weapon in your hand in the fight?
Once I put the mask on, I become the fighter. I gain some kind of power, strength. I am known as a sweet person but then I start fencing, and I am focused on the victory.
Your first medal was won for the Dutch Fencing Federation. You decided to compete for the Turkish National Team in 2016. Why did you decide to represent the Turkish team?
I have dual nationality as my grandfather is from Turkey. Fencing was very new to the Netherlands while I was a beginner. I was the first disabled person who wanted to participate in competitions and they did not really know how to deal with it. Turkish fencing was much more advanced and I made contacts. I felt this pride within the Turkish community that I did not feel in Holland. It might be to do with Turkish culture. Turkey made me feel respected and proud. I had heard there was an possibility for me to switch to represent Turkey and it felt like the right thing for me to do at that time. I am very proud to represent my grandfather’s country. I am very grateful for the opportunity that has been given to me on by the Turkish Federation.
What titles are you the proudest of?
I am very proud with all of the World’s titles during the World’s championships at 17 and 23 (9 bronze, 6 silver and 1 gold), but getting into the last 8 during the last European championship is a very special result for myself.
What are the best and the worst experiences in your professional fencing career?
Unfortunately, I have been dealing with some unusual injuries in my right arm. 2016/2017 was the toughest year for me as I was not able to do any training or participate in competitors because I had a bad shoulder injury. I am proud that I was able to fight through that, I came out as a stronger person and fencer! Following this experience, my last injury during Tokyo’s qualifications was easier to deal with. Still, injuries are exceedingly difficult to deal with, and you have to put a lot of time and effort into rehabilitation. In the end, it makes me a stronger person. The best experience is seeing the personal and professional growth. Fencing taught me so much in life. The realisation of the progress is the best feeling in the world!
This year we were supposed to celebrate the 20th edition of Kilinski Sabre. What are your memories from the tournaments in our country? Which tournament is the most special for you?
My first competition was in Warsaw in 2014. I’ve never forget about that competition. I used to be very shy, but I’ve met so many wonderful people. I created special friendships that year. It’s the place where I won my first world’s championship medals. That’s a moment to remember. I visit Warsaw every year for a championship, I made beautiful memories.
Paralympians in our country have to balance their training with a full-time job. Do policies in your country allow you to focus just on sport?
Officially, I am still a student. I find it really hard to combine a full time university education with competitive fencing. I made an agreement with my school to focus more on fencing and less on studying.I will continue with my full time study after the Paralympics.
I read that you’ve done some modelling work and you take a part in social campaigns. Which one of them was a memorable experience for you?
I have been doing a lot of awesome things! I’be been a model during the Amsterdam fashion week on a couple of occasions. I’ll never forget that. I’ve been a model for a huge L’Oréal campaign in Turkey. It is very important to see more diversity in fashion and media industry. I’ve struggled as an 11 yrs teenager with a disability growing up and never having a role model. Disabled people are misrepresented in the media. It makes me happy to be a role model for disabled kids these days. Giving those little boys and girls hope and power to believe in themselves is one of the most magical feelings!
What is your life motto?
Real beauty comes from within. If you are able to be who you want to be and live the life you want to live, then you can call yourself a real beauty!
And what about your dreams?
I wouldn’t call it a dream, I call it a goal… and that is winning gold at the Paralympics! I hope that way, I can show the kids that they can do whatever they want as long as they keep fighting and believing in themselves!
In one of your interviews you said: “Amputation was the most beautiful gift I could receive.” Did the amputation change your worldview?
I’ve been dealing with the worst pain on earth before my amputation. I was forced to be in bed for 19 hours a day, but I could never sleep because of the pain. I wasn’t even able to go to the kitchen to get myself a glass of water. I didn’t have a proper life for over 4 years. I have survived from day to day. I knew it can only get better after the procedure. I never saw it as a leg that I lost. I saw it as an entire life that I got back! I learned how to live my life, and hell yeah, I thought to myself, that is what I have been doing. I live, i enjoy life and I will never take anything for granted.
Your story is an inspiration for thousands of people after amputation. Have you ever thought about writing an autobiography?
I have been thinking about it a lot. I have learned over the years that I helped people just simply by being the person I am and telling my story. I hope I will write my autobiography one day!