'I always enjoy when the supermarket delivery man or woman comes to my door and spots my swords,' laughs Georgina Usher, ten-time British Senior Fencing Champion, Commonwealth gold medallist and current CEO of British Fencing (BF). We sit down to discuss her remarkable career and how now, as CEO, she hopes to tackle the wider responsibility she feels sports have to society and the wider benefits of participating in sport.
When discussing the challenges and opportunities in women's sport, Georgina quickly acknowledges the strides that have been made over the years, looking back on her early career in stark contrast to female professional fencing today. 'I remember when I was 15 women weren't allowed to do épée [one of the three types of fencing sword] because épée was considered too heavy and girls too weak – thankfully the world has moved on!' She credits the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Fencing Federation (FIE) with doing their part to promote parity among men and women in fencing. Since 2004 women have been able to compete in all three weapons at the Olympics, and finally in 2020 there will be enough medals available across teams and individuals to allow for the full complement of Olympic events – for both men and women. Georgina feels there is 'genuine equal opportunity at the top...the next question however is how do we get more women on that pathway?'
Female participation in sport does continue to be an issue, not just in fencing but in a broader sense. Despite various initiatives and investment made in recent years to encourage young girls to take up sport and engage with the sports industry, Sport England statistics still show that men are more likely than women to play sport. Why aren't more women playing sport and what can campaigners do to redress the balance? Education, coaching and training plays a part, but it is the quality of these sessions that can make all the difference in Georgina's view. British Fencing have been looking at how they can improve engagement by challenging the traditional approaches and using insight from young women to drive changes to the content of the sessions and the skills of the coaches that deliver them. 'A lot of logistical planning and effort goes into that. Our coaches and leaders have to be able to step into the shoes of the 15 year old girl standing opposite them. What are her hopes and fears for the session? How can she come away feeling really engaged and that she has achieved something positive?' The efforts appear to be paying off as British Fencing has seen some phenomenal statistics in their Sport England funded programmes, with retention rates as high as 70% among 14 and 15 year olds girls in these targeted sessions.
One thing Georgina was keen to do when taking on the role of CEO was to reach out to underrepresented groups, and in particular young Muslim women. Usher was able to partner with non-profit organisation Maslaha to create Muslim Girls Fence, a collaboration that is multifaceted in its purpose: to challenge the misconceptions of and raise aspirations among young Muslim women, while simultaneously breaking down the preconception of fencing as a white-dominated, elite sport.
It is here that Georgina is most passionate, highlighting that diversity in sport goes far beyond the opportunities and challenges faced by women. 'I wanted to see how we could use fencing to help minorities and disenfranchised groups challenge stereotypes and gain self-confidence.' Although some typically associate fencing with male-dominated private schools, fencing actually makes perfect sense as an option for young Muslim girls. In terms of clothing there is no logistical issue, and breakout fencing stars like Ibtijhaj Muhammad – the first Muslim-American to wear a hijab and win a medal at the Olympics – have helped draw attention to and interest in the sport.
Georgina, however, is less concerned with using this project to nurture the next generation of champions and more determined to help girls in socio-economically deprived areas expand their skill set and boost their self-belief. 'We are creating a project that uses fencing, yes, but the power lies in the co-facilitation of the sessions which create a meaningful mindset shift, both in the young girls and in the community leaders and coaches being trained to support the sessions. Ultimately it is about giving young girls the confidence to make positive choices, whether that is about saying 'yes' or 'no', and to seize opportunities in front of them.' The transformative effect that such sessions can have on these young women and their future is something Georgina feels the sport of fencing has a responsibility to engage in.
Georgina is also focused on creating a truly diverse sport and organisation. 'If you look at the top 20 athletes in elite fencing, they are not all identikit. They are completely different. That is what is fantastic about our sport – the highest level embraces individuality.' Within the organisation Georgina has not sought to rely on quotas to achieve a more balanced workforce but has actively gone out to attract candidates from a wide range of backgrounds. She feels that this has delivered better quality candidates overall and that the organisation is better off for it, benefiting from a long term effect rather than just a short term fix.
Creating this welcoming, inclusive and safe space within the sport is also crucial. Georgina identifies safeguarding as a key focus area for the sport internationally over the next few years. The FIE, the world governing body of fencing, has only recently started focussing on this area: adopting and approving a safeguarding policy, appointing Safeguarding Officers (of which Usher was one) for major championships and rolling out training on the subject. By the end of 2019, it is estimated there will be more than 20 international sport federations with some form of safeguarding structure in place to help protect athletes. 'When it comes to abuse and harassment, we have a responsibility to do everything we can. We have quite an advanced framework in the UK but we are always striving to do better. I'm not particularly interested if your child can do a fantastic sixte riposte [a move in fencing], I want to know first and foremost that your child is safe and happy participating in our sport.' Creating these safe, happy and inclusive environments will clearly assist in giving more parents and young people the confidence to engage in the sport, which is important to both recruiting women and other currently underrepresented groups – but also retaining them in the long term. In a sport like fencing which can take years of hard work to perfect, this is key: 'with the average age of an athlete in the top 50 in the world currently around 28, getting retention right is critical to future medal success.'
Igniting that interest in the sport takes us back to Georgina and the person delivering her grocery order, who typically eyes the swords in her hallway with surprise and curiosity. 'When they spot the swords I always ask, 'would you like to hold one?' It doesn't matter what age they are – when they pick up a sword for the first time, their shoulders go back, their body stands that little bit straighter and there is a real sense of excitement and challenge. If you could bottle that self-confidence and sense of physical empowerment, now wouldn't that be an amazing thing?'