Feb. 21, 2012
On the strip, Nikhil Patel darts quickly back and forth, controlling the distance between him and his opponent while waiting for the perfect moment to strike. At some point, he'll go to his signature move, a flick, which requires a great deal of strength and accuracy because it involves bending the blade in around the guard of his competitor.
The whole time, the empty right sleeve of his protective jacket flaps as he moves.
Born without half of his right forearm because of a congenital defect, junior fencer Patel has nevertheless found success in the epée discipline, especially this season. But none of that is surprising to the people who know him best as a person and as an athlete.
"There's not a big difference between him and another fencer on the strip," head coach Syd Fadner said. "Where it does make a difference is his tenacity. He never gives up, regardless of the score, the opponent, or anything. He always finds a way."
Finding a sport, learning to overcome
Patel has been finding a way his entire life. Because of his disability, he couldn't tie his shoes until fifth grade, struggled with the monkey bars unlike all of his friends, and wrote inverse at first, leading some people to wrongly believe he was dyslexic.
But he slowly learned to find ways to do those things, and the time came for him to choose a sport when he was 10 years old.
There are many stories of athletes at all levels who have achieved despite a physical disadvantage. In the 1940s, outfielder Pete Gray made a name for himself on the baseball diamond despite having lost his right arm in a childhood accident. Jim Abbott, who was born without his right hand, pitched a no-hitter against the Cleveland Indians in 1993. Just last year, Arizona State's Anthony Robles became the 125-pound weight class wrestling national champion even though he only had one leg.
Fencing ended up being the sport for Patel, and his story began rather innocuously. After following his younger sister Sonali, now a freshman on the Northwestern fencing team, to classes at the local JCC, he found it was ideal. Since the rules limit the use of the non-weapon hand, his disability was rendered a virtual nonfactor on the strip.
"I fenced for a year at the JCC and I fell in love with it," Patel said. "I figured why not do this for the next 10 years and sacrifice my life?"
Eventually, Patel found himself under the tutelage of Paul Pesthy, a former Olympic fencing and pentathlon team member and coach. In many respects, training under the "stern" but "warm-heated" Pesthy, one of the all-time greats of the sport, hammered home the lessons his parents had always imparted on him.
"He was pretty much the man who got me to BC in the first place," Patel explained. "He gave me the inspiration, gave me the tools to really work hard."
"The best coaches I ever had, like Paul, were the people who never even looked at me as having one hand, who just looked at me like any another student with abilities who could succeed if he worked hard."
While Patel was already well-versed in overcoming challenges, Pesthy's training methods taught him, along with many of the finer points of what Patel jokingly refers to as "physical chess," to push through mental and physical exhaustion.
"If you were late for practice, you'd have to run essentially a mile uphill after practice," Patel said. "Actually, the first thing he said to me when he met me was come back when you lose five pounds."
But the best piece of advice Pesthy ever gave Patel wasn't to lose five pounds or make sure that he made it to practice on time. Pesthy, who passed away in 2008 after a long battle with cancer, told him only one thing when Patel went to visit him in the hospital.
"He told me one thing: No excuses. And that really resonates in me because you can make up an excuse for anything."
"One of the best gifts God could have given me"
Patel still laughs when he thinks back on the day he incurred his mother's wrath by trying to get out of helping put away the groceries long before he found fencing. After pointing out he only had one hand, he was told he better find a way to make it happen or else.
"I should have never said that in my life," Patel said. "I got the best lecture of my life, and that really stuck to me."
"No excuses" has always been the guiding refrain of Patel's life. Pesthy just articulated it, making it resonate all the more. It comes from how he was raised, Patel said, and in many respects, his disability fueled his relentlessly positive outlook and his success.
"It would be easy for me to say having one hand would be a challenge, but I truly never felt it was a challenge or a setback," he explained. "It was something that fueled me every day to keep on working hard and becoming better than the kids who physically are technically more complete than I am."
His competitive fire, Fadner said, is what makes him such an effective fencer. Currently, Patel is in the middle of the best season of his college career, with a record of 37-15 this semester. In November, he finished 14 out of 88 competitors at the Fall Invitational at Smith College.
Being seen as an underdog because of his disability, even though he himself never loses sight of what he can do, has been a blessing.
"Having one hand, or any disability that's labeled, people tend to underestimate you, and that's one of the best gifts God could have given me," Patel said. "When someone truly underestimates you, it's all up to you. It's on your shoulders now to blow them out of the water, and that's what I do and what I work hard to do."
Proving them wrong
Although his parents and his coaches have always been supportive, sometimes people treat Patel's disability as more of a curse than a blessing. While he understands that they're just trying to help when they offer to carry his bag, open the door or tell him he shouldn't do something, he says it feels like they're trying to hold him back.
"There are always a lot of people that tend to be afraid because they just don't understand what you can do," Patel explained.
The list of things that people were afraid he wouldn't be able to do that he has perfected stretches on and on. Driving? He was told he shouldn't, and he now has his license. Typing on the computer? He types as fast, if not faster, than anyone. The monkey bars? Well, he's not interested in that anymore, but he could do it if he tried.
On a recent trip to Hawaii, he was stopped right before using the zip line by the park's manager. Little did he know that Patel had already done it four times in his life, and the manager had to eat his words after watching him glide down the line with ease.
"Sometimes, they don't want me to do it because they think I can't," he said, as a mischievous smile crossed his face. "Then it's my opportunity, and almost my pleasure, to prove them wrong."
Patel's "no excuses" attitude has inspired his teammates and helped him emerge as a leadership figure this season.
"He's really stepped up which is exciting to see," Fadner said. "He's become a key member of our leadership group."
Patel, for his part, doesn't understand what all the fuss is about because, to him, his story isn't that special and there are so many other inspirational people around him on the team.
"People tend to say for some odd reason, that you're my inspiration for having one hand," he said. "I tell them it's not that hard.
"It's truly just never giving up. That's the biggest challenge anyone has in their life."
Written by Jen Dobias