'I learned all my life how to fight': Camille Chai fights to reach Paralympic dream

Camille Chai, who was born without an arm and leg, dreams of making it to the Paralympics to represent Canada in wheelchair fencing.

Born without an arm and a leg, Camille Chai competes in wheelchair fencing at the 35th annual Défi Sportif

Camille Chai began practising wheelchair fencing after a chance encounter with a coach. Since then, she's dreamed of making it to the Paralympic Games. (CBC)

A referee quickly says, "En-garde, pret," and then pauses as Camille Chai readies herself on the fencing piste.

She extends her sword toward her opponent. He exclaims, "Allez," and the metal starts to fly. 

Swords clash creating a violent rattle. Chai searches for an opening. She thrusts forward and delivers a blow which wins her a point. It's over.

Chai raises her mask to reveal an ear-to-ear smile for everyone to see. Her adrenaline is pumping.

"I love to fight," Chai says. "I learned all my life how to fight in my everyday life. So now I have to learn how to fight but in sport."

Chai is one of nearly 100 athletes representing 15 different countries in a World Cup Para-Fencing competition as part of the 35th annual Défi Sportif in Montreal.

It's the next step in realizing her dream of making it to the Paralympics.
Camille Chai, right, was born with one arm and one leg. She's competing this weekend in Montreal at the Wheelchair Fencing World Cup. (Douglas Gelevan/CBC)

Pushed to succeed 

Chai says she's always been a person who has had competitive edge.

The 27-year-old Montrealer recalls that, despite the fact she was born without an arm and a leg, her parents never treated her as someone who needed help from others to accomplish day-to-day tasks.

"When I was learning to walk with my first prosthetic, I used to fall many, many, many times but [my parents] wouldn't come and help me because they knew that I had to learn to stand by myself."

Chai says, from the outside, her parents' choice to let her struggle may have seemed harsh but she thanks them for it now.

"When I grew up I felt strong — because they made me strong."

Chai says she always liked sports but the realization that she could take it to the next level happened by chance.

She was going for a casual bike ride when she says she was spotted by former Olympian and well-known fencing coach, Henri Sassine, who immediately recognized her athletic potential. 

I loved this image of being an athlete…because for me, it's a strong image.- Camille Chai, wheelchair fencer

"He came to me and he told me that he wanted to train an athlete to go to the Paralympics. At the time I didn't know anything about fencing." 

That chance encounter changed the direction of Chai's life.

"He gave me the idea of dreaming of being an athlete and I loved this image of being an athlete, even if I have a handicap, because for me it's a strong image," she says. 

Chasing the Paralympic Dream at Défi Sportif 

Camille Chai's dream is to represent Canada in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. (CBC)
After learning the basics of fencing, Chai took a few years away from the sport to live in Asia. 

Two years ago, she recommitted to fencing by spending more than $15,000 of her own money to compete on the World Cup circuit.

Now she has Tokyo 2020 in her sights.

"I would be a huge victory for myself, but also for sharing my message with people that if they want to do something, they can," Chai says.

"I think everything is about attitude. Even if we have two arms and two legs, everything is in our head." 

But she believes determination won't be enough to make her dream come true.

Chai is hoping to prove herself in events this year so she can qualify for financial support from Canada's Own The Podium Program. 

The event this weekend at Défi Sportif is an opportunity to take a big step forward. 

"I don't know if I'm going to win the gold medal for now, but everything will be a victory for me," Chai says. "When they say, 'Allez,' I have to fight."

The Wheelchair Fencing World Cup competition starts Friday, April 27 at Centre Claude Robillard and runs until Sunday, April 29.
Born without an arm and a leg, Camille Chai competes in wheelchair fencing at the 35th annual Défi Sportif. 2:27