Alyssa Fencil wasn’t feeling good about herself about a year ago. Since a pair of car crashes only three months apart in 2008, she hadn’t been very active, and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease that left her with headaches and diminished balance and reflexes. The diagnosis at least explained the symptoms that had been plaguing her. But after years of spending too much time on the couch, she couldn’t help but feel that something needed to change.
Fencil had tried taekwondo years earlier and enjoyed it, well before the car crash injuries that led to her MS diagnosis. Getting back into martial arts might get her active again, and help transform her body and her life, she thought.
After moving to Stevens Point in 2015, Fencil signed up for Stephen Decker’s Five Rings Martial Arts Taekwondo school. The school focuses on competition taekwondo, in which participants score points by kicking their opponent hard enough to set off a sensor in the sparring gear (yes, that includes the head). The competition aspect appealed to Fencil, she says, not necessarily because she wanted to compete, but because it would be an athletic class with people who challenged themselves.
For Fencil, a 34-year-old registered nurse and mother of two, the experience changed her life far more than she ever thought it would.
She shed 100 pounds in roughly 10 months just by stretching, practicing kicks and sparring with others.
From the beginning, she’s had to practice taekwondo in ways that accommodate her limitations caused by MS. Fencil must watch her balance and be mindful of recovery time. But otherwise, she trains hard right along side her fellow students. “I train with everyone else as if nothing is different,” Fencil says.
Last month, her life took another unexpected turn. She took a trip to Richmond, Va., to try her hand at a national tournament, just for fun. The idea was to gain some competition experience that she could bring back to Stevens Point to share with the younger students.
Fencil wound up winning, bringing home several medals. She also gained a spot on the national U.S. Para-Taekwondo team, and with that, a shot at entering the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan. It will be the first time taekwondo will be a medal sport in the Paralympics.
From a debilitating illness to physical fitness and now in the running for the Tokyo Paralympics—it’s all still bewildering to Fencil.
She might not have joined Decker’s school intending to a competitor, but she’s certainly one now. Videos of her tournament appearances leave a much different impression than the modest descriptions Fencil offers about herself. Talk to her teacher, Master Decker, as his students call him, and you get the impression Fencil is someone who can’t wait to compete.
How did Fencil go from couchbound to a champion fighter?
Into the fray
Decker, himself a fourth degree black belt in taekwondo, shows off, with obvious pride, videos of Fencil’s matches at that national tournament in Virginia. He and Fencil are sitting in the back room of his school, on Main Street in Stevens Point. He says the school has been growing since he opened in 2014; he’s on his second location and wondering if he needs a third.
That night, students wander in an out of the room grabbing their sparring gear, as a TV monitor shows off the main floor of the school, with students kicking at each other on red and blue mats reflected in wall-sized mirrors. Every once in a while a sweat-soaked student walks back to grab a water, out of breath from exertion. Fencil’s comment about this being a place where students work hard seems apparent.
Decker has his laptop set up, sitting on the couch. Fencil, with her red hair pulled back into a pony tail, watches on, a little nervous to be the center of attention while Decker plays video of her matches in Richmond. But the Fencil in the video appears anything but nervous.
After bowing to her competitor, she’s bouncing in a taekwondo stance, dodging kicks, throwing her own, and racking up points. A couple of pensive kicks are followed by a striking head kick that elicits a reaction from the couch. It isn’t long before the score has reached a 12-point margin, at which point a mercy rule takes effect and Fencil is named the winner.
She then fought a blue-belted woman, who was in a higher weight class and a higher belt than Fencil. She lost that exhibition match by only one point.
Shortly after she fought two matches that day, the unexpected happened. An announcement declared that Paralympic classifiers from Europe were at the tournament, and people could learn whether a disability qualified them for Paralympic competition. Fencil asked Decker to check it out with her—who knows what they’d find out?
The Paralympic Games is a major international event involving athletes with a range of disabilities. The first Paralympic Games were held in Rome in 1960 and featured 400 athletes from 23 countries. Today, the games are the second-largest sporting event in the world. This year, the competition will be held in September in Rio, at the site of the Summer Olympic Games. More than 4,350 athletes from 160 nations are expected to compete.
As an athlete with MS, Fencil qualified for Paralympic competition. There also happened to be an open spot on the national team in her weight division. From there came a flurry of meetings, and before she knew it she was on the team.
She next fought in a para-competition against a fourth degree black belt man from Milwaukee who’s also coached by Decker. Fencil took home two medals in that tournament, one as a para-athlete, the other for winning her division in the able-bodied competition.
Fencil’s determination will lend itself well to the national team, Decker says.
“I think she has a ‘no one is going to tell me I can’t’ stubbornness,” Decker says. “‘I’m not going to stop, I’m not going to quit, I’m not going to give into the pain.’ I think she thinks when the expectation of her is A, she’s going to do B. If the expectation is she isn’t going to the national championships, she does it.”
Starting from pain
In 2015, Fencil walked into her first taekwondo class at Decker’s studio and found everything she expected. Selected for its devotion to competition and challenge, the school didn’t disappoint. She joined back-to-back classes, which left her wondering what she was thinking jumping in after so many years of inactivity. “I thought I was going to die,” Fencil says. “I hadn’t done anywhere near that amount of physical activity in a long time.”
Decker jokes about her possessing ‘stubborn redheadedness,’ but is serious about her ability to defy expectations. That first day was tough, and she even sprained her ankle. “I kept coming back,” Fencil says. “I knew I had to develop new habits, and once I did, I was hooked.”
Fencil had more than just the challenge of getting into shape. Her MS makes balancing difficult and affects her reflexes, both of which are crucial in taekwondo.
But pushing herself with taekwondo practice is exactly the kind of thing she should be doing, says Amy Hanneman, a nurse practitioner with Aspirus’ Spine and Neuroscience Institute.
MS, an autoimmune disease that attacks nerve coatings (think of stripping the casing from a wire), isn’t a life sentence, Hanneman says. While there isn’t a cure, medication can manage the symptoms Fencil describes.
“She’s a good example of the fact that just because you’ve been diagnosed with MS, doesn’t mean you’re at your end,” Hanneman says. “The key is to maintain your function as much as possible.”
That means maintaining a fitness routine, though a person might have to scale back on the intensity, or try a different activity.
One patient Hanneman worked with used to run, but switched to cycling for its low impact after being diagnosed with MS. Generally, it’s a matter of listening to one’s body and allowing plenty of time for recovery, Hanneman says.
If Fencil appears to have no problem with taekwondo—landing kicks on her opponent during competition and throwing them out during a sparring session—it’s because she puts in a great deal of extra work for each move.
In other words, she compensates for her MS by perfecting techniques and making adjustments as needed.
Fencil deconstructs a move and practices it over and over until she makes it work for her body. “Sometimes it’s being shown something and having to go through the motions 100 times to figure out what’s different about me,” Fencil says. “This is how I figure out how to adapt it to my ability.”
Fencil also has advantages that lend themselves to the sport. The 34-year-old is tall—5 feet 9 inches—and has long legs even for someone her height. It’s easy to see what an advantage those legs are as she spins them toward an opponent’s head. During a sparring session one night last week, she easily launched an axe kick that nearly hit the head of her sparring partner—one who’s several inches taller than on her.
An international competitor
Fencil holds out her medals proudly upon request, but without looking boastful. She clearly loves being at the taekwondo school, enjoys the sport, the effort and the competition, but perhaps enjoys the attention a little less so.
The very real possibility that she might be heading to Tokyo to compete internationally feels overwhelming and unexpected. “I’m still trying to wrap my head around it,” Fencil says. “I’ve got a lot of training to do in the next four years.”
But going to the games is almost beside the point. Taekwondo already has changed her life. She’s happier, healthier, and found new people to connect with. She hopes her experience helps others who want to make a similar change in themselves.
“I want to use this as an opportunity for other people who might want to be active, but they think they can’t,” Fencil says. “I train with everyone else as if nothing were different. This is an opportunity for me to let other people know that just because they have a diagnosis, just because they have a disability, there is always something you can do.”