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Leslie ‘Les’ Veale was a dedicated coach for wheelchair fencing from the 1960s to the 1980s. In this time, he helped pioneer the development of the sport including the international fencing rules used at the Paralympics from 1976. 

Margaret Bullivant, his wife said of Les:

He was a generous teacher all around, loved teaching fencing, it was his sport . . . He always fought for recognition of the hard work of athletes and the coaches and helpers.”

Early Life

Les’ interest in fencing started during his time at Sheffield University. He was a talented sword fencer, competing for Yorkshire and then the England team in 1954. Beyond fencing himself, he became a qualified coach in all three weapons, epee, foil, and sabre. 

Paralympic Coaching

In 1962, Dr Guttmann was searching for a fencing coach near Lodge Moor Hospital in Sheffield. As a member of the Amateur Fencing Association (AFA) of Great Britain, which was affiliated to the Fédération Internationale d'Escrime (FIE), and a qualified teacher, AFA London asked if Les would coach for the Lodge Moor Hospital Spinal Injuries Unit. At the time, Les was head of further education at a local college and he was only able to take on the role because they agreed to him changing his timetable.

This began Les’ long coaching career in wheelchair fencing. From 1973 to 1984, Les was the national coach for the British wheelchair fencing team as well as being Chairman of the International Technical Committee for Wheelchair Fencing. During this time, he edited the international fencing rules for wheelchair fencers basing them on the non-disabled rules, working closely with the FIE to get their approval. His wife, Margaret Bullivant, remembers how it important it was to Les that wheelchair fencers had recognised rules the same as non-disabled athletes. His rules were officially accepted for the Toronto 1976 Paralympic Games. 

Les' invitation to a reception at 10 Downing Street in honour of the Toronto 1976 Games

At Lodge Moor, one of his first students was Cyril Thomas who was an experienced sportsman before his spinal injury. Together, they only had ten sessions of training before the Tokyo Paralympics in 1964 where Cyril won his first gold for foil and, in the years to come, many more. In his time at Lodge Moor and Doncaster Royal Infirmary, Les taught many successful Paralympians including Kevin Davies, Mick Kelly, Suzannah Rockett, Terry Willet and Steven Oglesby. 

In his role as Chairman of the International Technical Committee, Les worked on the design and manufacture of the specialist equipment required for wheelchair fencing. Alongside two local engineers, he created a slanting H-shape for the wheelchairs. Margaret recalls that no matter where the event was “the preparation…would happen in our garden shed.” Les had a “workshop for all the weapons.” He would make trips ahead of the Games to explain equipment to international hosting teams. 

Margaret speaks fondly of her husband and his impact, 

He loved the sport himself, and he would see a change in people. They’d sit straighter, a better outlook on life… it was bringing people out of an awful time . . . his enthusiasm and commitment were extraordinary, even after surgery for cancer he continued to work . . . there was a dedication that no-one knew.

After Retirement

Beyond coaching, Les spoke in Italy on the benefits of sport to those in a wheelchair due to spinal injuries, as well as contributing to the book “So You’re Paralysed” by Bernadette Fallon (published in 1978). 

Arguably, one of his greatest legacies was his establishment of the first mixed wheelchair and non-disabled fencing club in 1988 at the Dronfield Civic Centre in North East Derbyshire. According to his wife, people from as far as North Derbyshire would come to participate. The club led to many non-disabled fencers realising and appreciating the difficulty of playing in a wheelchair. 

Achievements

In 1976, Les received the Silver Medal awarded by the Honours Committee of the Amateur Fencing Association. This recognised his devoted service to the sport and his part in the development of fencing as a wheelchair sport. 


References:

  • Margaret Bullivant interview with April Byrne, 17th July 2020