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LA wheelchair Paralympian didn’t let bullet injury keep him from winning

Gerard Moreno lunges at his fencing partner and fellow Paralympian, Mario Rodriguez on August 20 at the Los Angeles International Fencing Center in West Los Angeles.
Gerard Moreno lunges at his fencing partner and fellow Paralympian, Mario Rodriguez on August 20 at the Los Angeles International Fencing Center in West Los Angeles.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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The drills at the L.A. International Fencing Center sound pretty typical, until you add a couple of wheelchairs.

There's a lot of knocking and rocking.

Gerard Moreno squares off with his fencing partner and fellow Paralympian, Mario Rodriguez. Their chairs are about five feet apart, secured to a metal track.

“We’re locked down in the frames and somebody’s going to get touched in the next few seconds, no matter what," Moreno said during a breather.

The men jab at each other, thrusting their bendable, three-foot-long foils. A machine beeps and lights up when a player hits a target on his opponent’s body.

Moreno’s arm is almost a blur as he feints and parries. They’re going at it so intensely, you think the wheelchairs may topple off the rails.

You need a lot of mental stamina to win at this game, Moreno says.

“You also have to have your computer in your mind going," Moreno explained. "And take note of what’s happened before, what the last touch was, what your opponent is thinking because at the same time, he’s trying to figure you out.”

Moreno, 55, was always a jock. He played football at Beverly Hills High School, and was a pole vaulter at Cal State L.A. He also fenced in college. He says his brother got him into it when he was younger.

“My brother was a sabre fencer, he’d come home from his practice, and want somebody to spar with, and put a sabre in my hand, so at a very early age I was fencing with him,” he said.

Everything changed when Moreno lost the use of his legs in 1981.

“It was a home invasion robbery," he recalled, "and I foolishly started putting up a fight with some people that had a gun.”

One of the intruders shot Moreno in the chest. The bullet tore off half his lung and shattered a vertebrae, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. He also lost the use of his stomach muscles.

He remembered that he was “pretty depressed for about a year, a year-and-a-half, going through some changes, just having to re-dial in my life.”

Moreno’s said he pulled himself out of his depression after realizing how fortunate he was that he could still use his arms and hands. He started playing tennis, got certified as a scuba diver, skied and started downhill racing with mountain bike racers.

And then in the mid-'90s his older brother persuaded him to return to fencing, this time in a wheelchair. He fell in love with the sport all over again.

Moreno hopes to have an extra edge in London, because his training partner (Rodriguez) fences in a different category — the one for paraplegics who can use their stomach muscles. While his partner bobs and weaves, Moreno must rely on just his arm and wrist speed.

Moreno has additional motivation: his mother died earlier this year. She was his biggest fan.

“I’m dedicating my efforts in London to her and it was tough," he said. "I was lucky enough to have her for 90 years and I carry her spirit and emotion and drive within me.”

Moreno is an eight-time national champion in sabre, a three-time champion in foil, and he’s currently ranked number one in the US. But he’s never won a medal in a Paralympics, despite three previous tries.

He’s hoping the fourth time will be the charm.