“Maybe fencing and my accident made me a better person” – Szekeres
Pal Szekeres is seen as somewhat of a living legend in Hungary and further afield.
In 1988, at the Seoul Olympics, he won bronze in the team foil. This, combined with a home win at a World Cup in 1989, propelled him to national fame.
But three years later, in his early twenties and as he was preparing for the next Olympic Games, he was involved in a life-changing road traffic accident.
Fast forward less than 12 months, and now a Para athlete, Szekeres became the first athlete to win a medal at both the Olympics and Paralympics when he topped the podium in foil, this time in wheelchair fencing.
After turning tragedy into triumph, he credits much of his success to a love of fencing and sport.
A self-confessed rebel, Szekeres began fencing after finding it difficult to fit in at school.
After trying cycling Szekeres came across fencing as a child by chance. But even here he was a bit of a misfit.
Szekeres recalls being the shortest person in his lesson. As a result he was paired with one of his peers according to height.
“There was a big medicine ball, and the girl threw it to me, and I fell back, and everyone laughed. But when I became a wheelchair user, I was paired with the strong basketball player, and the same thing happened again.
“The start of my fencing career started with everyone laughing at me, and so did the same for my wheelchair career, everyone laughed at me from when I fall back.”
Building a new life
Despite this apparent clumsiness Szekeres managed to adapt to his new life, a process which he says took around five years from the date of his accident.
“When I became a wheelchair user, my career at the university and my personal life as well was broken. I had a full diary for four years, but after my accident, it was empty.
“However it was also a possibility to see progression and to find motivation from my accident. It was important to be positive. The rebuild was from 1991-1996 but in that time I won many competitions, and finished university as a fencing coach, I finished other schooling, I restarted education in marketing and economics. In 1996 I was married, I started to work in a big company for rehabilitation, I was involved in international NGO’s [non-governmental organisations], and I found a normal life in a wheelchair. I normalised my life. I got a driving license. And from 1996, I then had a full calendar.”
Szekeres would go on to add two more golds and three bronze medals to his Paralympic collection at four consecutive Games until 2008. He retired in 2012 having also won multiple European and world Cup medals in wheelchair fencing.
Influence outside sport
Other notable achievements for the Hungarian have come from his career in government and sport administration.
Szekeres has been a deputy state secretary within the Ministry of Children, Youth and Sports as well as for able-bodied and Para sports. He was Ministerial Commissioner and Senior Programme Officer tasked with a government programme to provide equal opportunity through sport for people living with disabilities. He has also been a member of the board of the European Paralympic Committee and Hungarian Paralympic Committee and President of the Hungarian Sports Federation for the Disabled.
He is the current Chair of the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sport Federation (IWAS) Wheelchair Fencing Executive Committee, the global governing body of the sport.
Szekeres has therefore successfully used his fame to influence parts of society.
“After the Paralympics [in 1992] I became quite well known. I didn’t want to be famous, I did not celebrate that I was famous. Instead I began to work to change what it was like to be in a wheelchair, and I had a new life and a lot of positive energy.
“I became a well-known person, and I realised the other part of that position is that people listen to me, and so therefore I have to be very normal, open and set an example. If I go to the school and people want a selfie or autograph, I can’t show my bad face even if I have pain. There are times I did have to go and be positive even if my finger was broken or I had to go to the dentists.
“It also has negatives as on the street some people will know me. It is like being a premier league footballer, and people know me and stop me on the street, and ask for selfie, or stop me in a restaurant. But on the other side if I got to a restaurant and criticise the accessibility for disabled people, I go back in two weeks and they have changed it. Therefore I have to use that power sometimes.”
For him, Szekeres’ career on and off the piste as someone fighting for change stems from his national identity and personal experiences.
“99.9 per cent of Hungarians wanted revolution and change [in the 1980s]. We have a long history in Europe. We came from Asia more than 1,000 years ago and had a lot of problems, a lot of empires where 80 per cent of Hungarians died. Then after all the wars we are seen as freedom fighters.
“So at the age of 20 what do you want? I want to change the world. I don’t want to see poor people, and when I was 18, I was criticised for having long hair, and wearing jeans, or vests and shoes.
“A young boy wants to a have a Ferrari and beautiful ladies. But my dream was to be an Olympic champion and then to have those things. Then I had my accident and it opened up possibilities to help, and maybe that’s why I had my accident – to become a catalyst in changing things in Hungary. Even if I have a good car, it is just a car. I chose to become a father and have three children, I can buy that kind of car, but I’m not interested.
“Maybe the fencing and the accident made me a better person.”
#WheelchairFencing65 is celebrating 65 years of wheelchair fencing by sharing the stories of the some of the sport’s most prolific athletes and its history.
In 1955 wheelchair fencing made its competitive debut at the International Stoke Mandeville Games in Great Britain. It would go on to feature at the first Paralympic Games at Rome 1960.