Newham Swords is training the next generation for fencing stardom — and heart

People

Newham Swords is training the next generation for fencing stardom — and heart

The reigning British champion in women’s foil fencing trains right here in the Royal Docks. And she’s only 16 years old.

This April, Teagan Williams-Stewart knocked out opponents a decade her senior to take the title. So one Thursday evening, we sat in on a training session at Teagan's club, Newham Swords.

The Swords are based out of UEL’s SportsDock on the eastern end of Royal Albert Dock. That evening, the basketball court in the complex was lined with pairs of children decked helmet to toe in white gear. They darted back and forth on electrified mats, clipped in to a scoring box that registered any hits. Every few minutes, a coach would bellow, “Change! Change!” above the din of the hall.

This is a sport with a learning curve. To the unfamiliar, the pace of a match seems impossibly fast and the scoring system opaque. Yet Teagan took to it after just a few sessions, rapidly dropping football, basketball, and dance when she first tried it a few years ago.

On plastic chairs in one corner, she explained that her latest win was an important one not just for the title. “It was really emotional, because my coach, Linda, has also won the same trophy. She's won it seven times, and now my name's on it as well.” Teagan's dream is the Olympics, and like any aspiring Olympian this comes with sacrifice. Tonight's session would go on until 10pm, and tournaments mean catching up with homework on planes and in hotel rooms.

Teagan Williams-Stewart

Teagan won the British senior national champion title in women's foil for 2019.

While the fencers practiced, coach Linda Strachan told us the club’s story with exuberance and pride, breaking off now and again to give the order, “Change!” or answer a question from a child.

She said, “Oh, Teagan's a talent. I'm glad she walked into this club. She has a maturity beyond her years.” Was there anything that marked her out? “Her pure drive and will to win.”

Linda set up Newham Swords with her partner in life and sport, Pierre Harper. Both ex-Olympians, they took part in hosting a summer programme in 2005 to encourage children to try something new. “We didn't know that 400 kids would come through the door in two weeks. We thought: best set up a club.”

Most fencing clubs focus either on elite internationals or on grass-roots community sport. Newham Swords is notable for doing both. It’s also far from the expensive and exclusive image — and often reality — associated with the sport. Linda said, “We have every continent represented here. We have different age groups, different sexes, different religions, and that's the beauty of this club.” The club has worked with 30 international competitors and Swords girls have won every single British ranking competition at under-seventeen and under-twenty level.

But they didn't have an easy beginning among more established institutions. “When we first came on the scene, we didn't get a good vibe from British Fencing. People looked on us as dregs, and we were referred to as the ‘Red Army’ — you know, boisterous.” Over time, good nature as well as the sheer results have won out over stereotypes. “This is a lovely club. It doesn't matter how old [the children] are, they all help each other. People would think, ‘East End kids, they're loud, they're not very well-behaved,’ but they are lovely.”

Newham Swords

Former Olympic fencers Linda Strachan and Pierre Harper founded the club in 2005 after 400 children came along to a summer taster programme.

That's what the Newham Swords are teaching other kids, that you have to fence with heart, not just looking pretty.

Linda Strachan, Newham Swords co-founder

In fact, Linda argues that her fencers are teaching their opponents from more privileged backgrounds empathy and teamwork. She's watched them, for instance, be the only ones take the initiative in offering to warm up with a lone fencer at competitions. “I think we coach with passion, and that's what they are teaching other kids, that you have to fence with heart, not just looking pretty.”

There is a glimpse of that heart from both children and parents when Teagan points out her mum across the room. She explains, “Mum drives me to all my competitions, she has no weekends off pretty much, and in the evening she comes and helps out at club. She sacrifices a lot for me, so I feel like when I go to a competition, I need to do my best. It's an added pressure, but it makes it even better when you win, because you know you haven't just won for yourself.”

At Newham Swords, Linda and Pierre are providing a place where Olympic athletes might be made, but equally a space where children who are struggling in school or with a difficult home life can learn discipline and gain confidence.

As Linda put it, “We want to take them on a journey, and that journey may take them to international stardom, or it might make them just stronger at school, but we’re there with them the whole way.” For her, the club is about much more than winning trophies, it’s about helping children be the best version of themselves: “We haven’t got kids of our own, because we competed for a long time. These are our kids.”