South African fencer Harry Saner jousts his way to Olympics

South African fencer Harry Saner jousts his way to Olympics
Fencer Harry Saner takes a moment to prepare for battle. (Photo: Supplied)

The 23-year-old final-year Wits University student has secured South Africa’s first Olympic Games slot in the sport since 2008.

It’s been almost a month since South African fencer Harry Saner pointed his sword with the magical finesse of his fictional namesake, Harry Potter, to qualify for the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris.

Yet the 23-year-old says he is still soaking it all in and can hardly believe he is heading to France. On 27 April, Saner jousted, dodged and shimmied his way to a spot at the 2024 Games by winning the épée section of the African qualifiers held in Algiers.

In the process, the final-year Wits University mechanical engineering student made history, since he will be the first fencer to represent South Africa at the Olympics since the country sent a team to the 2008 tournament in Beijing.

Saner, though, is not the first fencer to qualify since 2008. Juliana Barrett achieved qualification in the same way for the 2016 Rio Games.

However, stringent selection criteria by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) denied her the chance to travel with the contingent that flew to Brazil eight years ago.

A relaxation of these criteria by Sascoc has opened the door for athletes such as Saner to fulfil a dream that many athletes have – to represent their country on the grandest multisport platform.

Deeper meaning

“For me it’s not so much about my qualification as much as it is that I achieved it. It’s more about what it means for the SA fencing community. Hopefully all the children who have seen me qualify can look to that and grow. It shows them that it’s possible,” Saner told Daily Maverick.

“When I did see it as a sport that I could do, and then I found that I also enjoyed it and wanted to continue with it, the idea of going to the Olympics spurred me on because this is the highest achievement we can get in the sport. That was always at the back of my mind,” he said.

Intrigued by knights

The combat sport first piqued his interest when he was a youngster, through his fascination with all things medieval. He was particularly intrigued by knights, their shining armour and the jousting. He wanted to emulate them somehow.

Then, in 2008, his opportunity arrived. He was exposed to the sport of fencing while watching that year’s Games. He was instantly fascinated and begged his parents to find a school where he could learn more. After some nagging they finally caved in.

He explored a variety of other sports at his alma mater, St Stithians College, including rugby, cross-country and swimming. But nothing could replace wielding a sword.

Eight years ago, at 16, he decided fencing was the only sport for him and he focused all his energy on becoming the very best he could possibly be in it.

“In 2016, when I went to my first Junior World Championships, I realised that we have the level [to compete]. We just need the experience. I told myself that I can do this,” Saner said.

Harry Saner

Saner and his teammates celebrate his qualifying for the Olympic Games in Paris. (Photo: Supplied)

Team effort

Though the fencer has represented the country at various international tournaments, his coach Genna Tyshler (who is also the owner of Tyshler Fencing School, which has helped to mould Saner into the well-rounded human he is) says it’s not always easy to compete at that level.

Tyshler said they were hoping to qualify for the Games as a team. However, because of the financial constraints that come with competing regularly at such a high level, they were not successful in their bid.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Bursting with talent, achievers and potential’ — Sascoc names first squad of SA athletes for Olympics

“Harry’s qualification is the result of the work of our team. It was about 20 to 30 people that worked together to achieve this. Unfortunately, team qualification is influenced by participation in many World Cups in order to achieve a certain ranking,” Tyshler explained.

“Unfortunately, we did not have enough money to be able to participate in all these tournaments… We ended up ranked second, when we were supposed to be first in order to qualify as a team,” the coach added.

Read more in Daily Maverick: How breakdancing became the latest Olympic sport

“But I told them that if we don’t qualify as a team, one of you will qualify individually. So that plan worked. It could have been another fencer from our team, but Harry qualified and we’re all proud of him. It’s a great achievement, especially for the future because he is still young. But we will not go there to be tourists – we will try to win a medal,” he said.

Tyshler has years of experience and was also the coach the last time South Africa sent fencers to the Games, in 2008. Saner said in the build-up to the Games he and his mentor will not be altering their approach significantly, though there will be some minor changes out of respect for the level of competition he will encounter in Paris.

“I’m focusing very hard on my training. I’m not going to massively adjust anything to my routine… And we know that what I did a few months before winning my qualifier worked, so we will stick mostly to that,” Saner said.

Crash course

Saner also provided a brief crash course for anyone who may want to track his journey at the Games, explaining how his chosen discipline works.

“I do the simplest sword – épée. There are three swords that have different rules. The other two are foil and sabre. Épée is if you hit, the light [on the suit] comes on and you get a point. If you hit together, you both get a point. You can hit wherever you want,” explained Saner.

“Generally, there are pool phases preceding the knockouts. But at the Olympics it’s direct elimination. So, you have a 15-point bout. Once you reach 15, you win. Or if you have an unassailable lead, you win. There are three rounds of three minutes, with one minute of rest in between.”

Having spent the past few years frantically juggling the demands of a difficult degree with honing his combat skills to Olympic level, 2024 has the potential to be a memorable year for Saner.

If all unfolds as he dreams, the year will end with him being both an Olympic medallist and a qualified engineer. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Roger Saner says:

    I, too, would like to hone my combat skills to Olympic levels. Alas! Wishing you all the best with preparation for the Olympics, Harry!

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