OTD candidate emerges as a top parafencer

By Brendan O'Sullivan '21, MS '22, Photo by Autumn Driscoll February 14, 2022

Tori Isaacson wears her USA fencing clothes and stands by her wheelchair holding fencing equipment

Victoria Isaacson, OTD ’23, is way too busy leading their life as a competitive fencer, fencing coach and doctor of occupational therapy student to give much thought to the genetic condition that has impacted their life since high school.

It might slow down some people, but not Isaacson, who competes in a wheelchair as a parafencer, both nationally and internationally.

“Once we took away the element of my disability limiting my fencing, I just took off,” Isaacson said. “I improved very quickly.”

The day before this conversation Jan. 11, Isaacson had returned from a national competition called a North America Cup in San Jose, California. They plan to travel to Italy in March, Poland in July, and Hungary in the fall to compete in the World Cup Circuit for wheelchair fencing. They hope to qualify for the Paralympics Games in Paris in 2024 by accumulating points at these competitions.  

Isaacson is the only international wheelchair fencer currently in New England. They train in both épée and foil, two of the three fencing weapons (the third is sabre). At the San Jose NAC, they took a gold medal in foil and a silver medal in épée. They explained that parafencers must do two of the three to qualify for the Paralympics where able-bodied fencers train in only one of the weapons. Each has different rules, tactics, techniques and equipment.

Swords and Horses

During their junior year of high school, Isaacson had two loves: fencing and horses. They participated in national and regional fencing tournaments and were doing well until back-to-back injuries in Spring 2015 injured their left femur. They took a few weeks off to allow their leg to heal and resumed fencing.

But, all was not well. Isaacson began suffering frequent migraines. A day before one of their tournaments, they told their coach Eric Soyka, owner of The Phoenix Center fencing club in Poughkeepsie, that they planned to take a break from fencing after that match and see a neurologist. Something was wrong, they could feel it.

As Isaacson competed the next day, they collapsed with tremors. Their mother took them to a pediatric emergency room, and they were hospitalized for three days. The tremors didn’t stop, and their cause would remain a mystery for the next four years.

Soyka helped them re-learn hand-eye coordination, balance, and taught them to fix equipment. “I’ve been working with Eric for 10 years now, he remembers my first fencing lesson,” Isaacson said.

The migraines and tremors persisted for the next year, during which they continued to fence despite the tremors.

“I hit this point where I would do extremely well in pools [first-round bouts], and then when we got to direct eliminations, I was just gassed,” Isaacson said. “I couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything. My legs were just dead.”

In addition to the tremors and migraines, Isaacson struggled to use their left leg, putting all their weight on their right. Their left leg never completely healed from a previous injury, resulting in secondary pain conditions, which causes pain and swelling, among other symptoms.

“It was kind of like a slow progression over a couple of years,” Isaacson said. “My left leg kept getting worse. The shaking kept getting worse. The tremors and the migraines kept getting worse.”

They began their undergraduate studies at Stony Brook University. Because of their left-side weakness, they qualified for parafencing, also known as wheelchair fencing. Soyka knew of this version of the sport and learned the sport along with Isaacson as they trained.

While in college, they undertook their own research into their condition and found that the symptoms were a match for Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a relatively rare genetic condition that affects connective tissue. Genetics testing confirmed their hunch.

Isaacson describes EDS as a chronic, progressive condition that isn’t curable. About one in 5,000 people in the world have EDS.

“At first, it was pretty rough,” Isaacson said. “It was like a whole new part of my identity, and I didn’t really know how to deal with it. It was rough on my family, too.” The community they found through their sport has helped them deal with the depression and anxiety that ensued.

“I met people like me, and having a community where I was around other disabled people, I just really started settling in.”

Isaacson began parafencing in 2018 and was selected to participate in the 2019 World Cup Championship in Cheongju, South Korea. “I did well considering the small amount of time I had to prep for it,” they said.

They had graduated with a degree in anthropology and were working full time at a horse rescue, a job they enjoyed, although the manual labor it required took a toll on their health. They considered returning to school to pursue a degree in physical therapy, but a friend cautioned that it might prove too physically taxing. Instead, they looked for schools that offered occupational therapy programs.

“I did a broad search, then found the Quinnipiac OTD program, and I’m in the first OTD class. I decided to trust what the universe wants for me,” they said.

A Passion for Teaching

When Isaacson isn’t fencing, they enjoy teaching it at the Rogue Fencing Academy in Woodbridge, Connecticut, and at The Phoenix Center on weekends when they commute home. The money they make supports their travels.

Sandra Marchant, an adjunct fencing professor at Quinnipiac, opened Rogue Fencing Academy in April along with her co-owner, Soyka.

Marchant has competed on the U.S. National Team for about 25 years, earning 44 national medals. She had met Isaacson when she competed against them years ago at The Phoenix Center. 

“Tori educates the kids a little bit more on a different level,” said Marchant, adding that many wonder how they can compete if they are in a wheelchair. “Tori shows them, and it opens their minds a little bit more to how the world works, and that it’s very inclusive for everyone."

“Tori competes at the World Cup level. If they can do it, then these kids that attend school here, they feel they can do anything, too,” Marchant said.

Isaacson’s professional goal is to work as a pediatric occupational therapist in schools or outpatient settings. For their capstone course, they are developing a template for a parafencing program that USA Fencing clubs might one day be able to use to attract more wheelchair fencers to the sport and thereby increase their numbers at World Cup competitions. In addition, the capstone will look into the impact fencing has on quality of life in athletes with disabilities.

Isaacson tells their students, both children and adults, that if they truly like fencing and want to put the work in, “I will match their level of energy and enthusiasm and help them become the best they can be.”

Much like Isaacson has done in their own life.

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