Fencer crosses swords with the best

KATHY RUMLESKI -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 1:07 PM ET

Monique Kavelaars felt like a hockey player from Mexico. Making history as a member of the first Canadian women's epee fencing team to qualify for the Olympics, the Appin native said along the journey to Athens she was in awe of the great fencing nations, such as Russia and Italy.

At first, it was hard to believe that a team from Canada -- where fencing is on par with perhaps cricket -- had qualified, Kavelaars said this week while vacationing in the London area.

She lives in Sweden with husband Andreas Karlsson, a former NHLer.

Qualifying for Athens took an incredible amount of hard work, commitment and sacrifice, she said, such as moving to Paris two years before the Olympics, struggling to learn French, find a job and train.

"I was a Mexican hockey player showing some talent and I wasn't going to get any better staying in Mexico," said Kavelaars, who will turn 34 tomorrow.

Kavelaars and her teammates blossomed in Paris under French coach Daniel Levavasseur, whose athletes won medals at eight Olympics prior to Athens.

The Canadian team landed in Athens under the radar and came away fourth after losing to France 45-37 in the bronze-medal match.

Kavelaars, a Regina Mundi and York University grad, said most people ask what it was like to lose the bronze.

She said what most don't know is that the underdog Canadians could have won the gold.

Kavelaars and Julie Leprohon had battled to a tie with Russia in the semifinal but in the last match team leader Sherraine MacKay couldn't defeat her opponent and that put them into the bronze matchup with France.

"You're just numb," said Kavelaars, who lost in the second round at the Olympics in individual epee.

Last month, the epee team finally got its revenge, defeating France in a 45-44 come-from-behind victory at a World Cup in Germany, where they finished fifth.

Levavasseur was watching.

"What? I had to leave for you guys to beat France," he said to the Canadians. Levavasseur is now coaching the Chinese.

"We're not a fluke," Kavelaars said proudly.

The team continues competition on the World Cup circuit, leading up to the world championship in Germany in October. Up next is a competition in China next month. It just completed a training camp in Montreal.

While in Canada, Kavelaars took the opportunity to visit her parents, Anne and John Kavelaars in Appin. Living next door are Ria and Jack deVos, parents of soccer star Jason deVos, who has 49 caps for Canada.

Kavelaars finds it hard to believe she and deVos have both represented Canada on the world stage.

"I used to beat him up," she joked.

Also on the world stage is her twin sister Ingrid, an actress living in Los Angeles who has had TV roles in Jeremiah, Code Name: Eternity and Stargate SG-1.

Monique taught actor Luke Perry how to fence for his role in Jeremiah.

Former beauty queens, the sisters are best friends (Ingrid is married to a former NHLer, Dallas Eakins). They're also driven, like their older siblings.

One sister is an accountant, the other an art and religion teacher. Her brother has a doctorate in physics.

"I credit that to my parents. Education was always a huge thing," Kavelaars says.

But a solid work ethic was also instilled in the children.

Kavelaars started fencing at 17 because it was one of the disciplines of the modern pentathlon.

She didn't enjoy it at first, but said she needed to do well in fencing if she wanted to have success in the pentathlon.

Soon she was addicted.

"It's like playing a video game," says the expressive, personable athlete, who -- one would never guess -- likes to battle with a weapon in high-stress situations.

Epee -- which simulates an actual duel -- is suited to her personality, she said, because there are less restrictions, less judging.

"Just let me at 'em.

"In fencing, you could be five-foot-four or six-one," she says.

"Your physical attributes can be an asset in any regard.

"It comes down to your brains. You have to think quick. You've got a split second to make decisions," says Kavelaars, who stands five-foot-six .

At this point, she's not sure if she'll compete until the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"The Olympics are amazing and I'd love to do another one," she says.

"But my priority is definitely my family."


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