Various forms of sports psychology, and her “weird moves” gives teenage Team USA fencer best chance at earning a gold medal
Shelby Jensen, 19, is a teenage wheelchair fencer who knows how to get what she wants out of her opposition using mind games. She can think more than three steps ahead of her opposition. However, growing up, she never saw fencing in her future.
“Never. Never in a million years. Never did I ever see myself on the path to the Paralympics with Team USA,” Jensen says.
Several media outlets (including Team USA’s website) and fencing experts have called the teenage phenom Team USA wheelchair fencing’s best hope for gold at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Paralympic Games. Nevertheless, becoming an expert in wheelchair fencing took her by surprise.
Jensen was born Feb. 8, 2001, to parents Sheri and Jed Jensen. When she was younger, she had a brain aneurysm that caused a stroke. As a result, she can’t move the right side of her body. Officially classified as a Class A fencer, she does have the ability to stand up and move her legs to a very minimal extent. When she competes, it is from her wheelchair.
Jensen first discovered wheelchair fencing while volunteering at a wheelchair sports camp when she was 16. During one session, while helping out, she was invited to try wheelchair fencing for the first time. She made a large impression on Bill Nikolai, the head of wheelchair fencing at the Utah Swords Academy Fencing Club in Salt Lake City. However, at first, the feeling about the sport wasn’t exactly mutual.
“At first, I thought, ‘Eh. It was OK,’” Jensen says. “Then, they wanted me to try again the next day, and they really liked me.”
The coaches saw her potential and put her on the fast track for the U.S. Paralympic team.
Currently, Jensen is the United States’ No. 1-ranked athlete in the saber (No. 19 worldwide), No. 2-ranked in epee (No. 22 worldwide) and No. 2 in the foil (No. 27 worldwide). Despite the fact that she has not officially qualified for Tokyo, she leads all contenders in points by a wide margin.
That’s not bad for someone who picked up the blade three years prior to being nationally ranked.
Jensen, who is now taking college courses, loves to read. She started studying more about the sport and psychological elements of it.
“I read a lot of psychology books. I get the psychology behind wheelchair fencing and all the mental games that we have to play with each other,” Jensen says. “It’s like cat and mouse… It’s basically fight or flight. I am either on offense or defense depending on who I am fencing. If they pose a threat to me, it is a constant exchange of attacks and parries, essentially handing the role of cat and mouse between each other.”
Another part of the psychology of the sport, in her experience, has to do with preparing for the event. Jensen doesn’t think “big time” because matches are so short. She thinks one point at a time and clears her mind before a match.
“The hardest part of fencing is getting ready to go into the bout,” Jensen says. “I focus by putting my headphones on and zoning everyone out. I walk around and watch people’s technique. I don’t really think about fencing. I just like watching it in competitions where I am about to be fencing and focused for the next eight hours.”
Jensen has also had success in the sport because of her unique form and technique.
“I fence weird. As crazy as that may sound, I have weird moves that I have made my own,” says Jensen. “My moves consist of me being fluid and fast or jerky and slow, depending on who I am fencing. When the others fence, they tend to stick to a single style, which makes them easier to read. Whereas changing my style from person to person, I become harder to predict and counter.”
She can perform these weird movements mostly because of the intense core exercises that her coach, Brandon Smith makes her do to stay flexible in the bouts.
Overall, Jensen is thankful for several things – the most important which is making it this far in life by having the opportunities that have been given to her.
“I am thankful for the Utah Fencing Foundation for supporting me and all that I do and the U.S. Para-fencing/fencing Teams for supporting me also,” says Jensen. “I am so grateful for my parents and for them allowing me to do this, because I wouldn’t be able to do this without them.”
Jensen’s next big competition is April 17-20 St. Louis at the Division I National Championships and April North American Cup competition.
For more on Jensen and wheelchair fencing, visit usafencing.org.