Harrogate role model business student aiming for the Paralympics

Aspiring teenage Harrogate Paralympian Emily Holder is aiming for two ‘gold medals’ at the same time - in fencing and in business.

By Graham Chalmers
Thursday, 20th January 2022, 4:39 pm
Updated Thursday, 20th January 2022, 4:42 pm
Wheelchair fencer and Harrogate College student Emily Holder in action.
Wheelchair fencer and Harrogate College student Emily Holder in action.

The Harrogate College student may only be 17 but she is already near the very top tier of wheelchair fencing, with National Championship medals - among others - for England to her name.

Emily, who made her debut for Great Britain last November at the IWAS wheelchair fencing World Cup in Pisa, Italy, now has her sporting sights firmly fixed on breaking into the Paralympic team and winning a medal.

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Paralympian Emily Holder outside Harrogate College, where she is studying a BTEC National Extended Diploma in Business.

She has also been flying high in her Level 3 BTEC National Extended Diploma in Business – despite having to contend with pandemic-related interruptions and a recovery period following surgery - which she will complete this year.

Juggling the two workloads has been far from easy, especially when having to travel to Milton Keynes regularly for her key training sessions, but it is a challenge she is enjoying.

She said: “This course has been a good choice for me and in terms of the college being flexible to let me continue my fencing and training, it’s been really great.

“The staff have been very helpful and understanding. Although we haven’t been going to too many things, because of Covid, when it has come to me having to take time to attend training and fencing competitions they’ve been really good, on the understanding that I just need to make sure I get the work done. Which, to be fair, I always do!

“I also use a little bit of sport psychology, in terms of setting goals and deadlines, envisioning positive outcomes and that sort of thing, to help with my studies.”

Emily has cerebral palsy and the level of her mobility varies depending on how much chronic pain she’s experiencing and her spasticity (muscle tightness) and dystonic (involuntary muscle contraction) levels. She often uses a crutch but on good days can manage without it, and also has an electric wheelchair.

For her fencing she uses a specialist sports wheelchair which costs £4,000, and which the athletes have to pay for themselves, as the female GB team receives virtually no funding support.

Her fencing gear - including two different blades, a foil and an épée, a mask, gloves and more – is also expensive so her participation has required a major investment in money, and time, from her family.

The dedication she has shown to both her studies and fencing has led tutors at Harrogate College to hail her as a ‘fantastic role model’.

Course leader David Gaunt added: “Emily is very conscientious and always prioritises her grades.”

Her love of business was inspired by the example of her father, who has proven to be very useful when it comes to her fine-tuning her coursework.

She said: “He’s been a great help as I can run things by him to see if they make sense in the real world too, because theory’s often very different from practice.

“I’ve always been aware that I need to commit myself to both things, my fencing and my studies. Some of my teammates, the Paralympians, only fence but they’ve always said to me ‘don’t just rely on it, you have to try to have two careers rather than one’.”

Emily’s interest in competitive sport began in 2013, when she was just nine, after attending a disability sports festival and deciding to pursue swimming and fencing.

She eventually chose to focus on fencing as that would give her a better chance of one day becoming a Paralympian.

She said: “Fencing is a really niche sport anyway, and when you add disability to the mix it’s tiny. There are only four competitive female GB wheelchair fencers in the entire country!

“Paris, in 2024, may be my first chance to compete in the Paralympics in a team event, but LA in 2028 is maybe a bit of a more realistic goal.”

Emily, who lives in North Rigton, started off at Harrogate Fencing Club but now does the majority of her training in Milton Keynes while also using online coaching plus facilities at Durham, York and Bath.

As for her studies, she is aiming to take up a Business Management or Human Resources course at university later this year, and has already had three offers. She has also been gaining some valuable work experience at Portakabin’s York base.

Anyone who would like to support Emily’s fencing by sponsoring her can do so by sending an e-mail to [email protected]

For more information about wheelchair fencing visit britishdisabilityfencing.co.uk/.

Details on courses at Harrogate College can be found at harrogate-college.ac.uk/courses/.