When Juliana Barrett was eight years old, a table fell on her leg, keeping her in a wheelchair for a good few months. By the time her final cast was removed, her leg had wasted away and her mother advised her to take up a sport to rebuild the lost muscle. Barrett tried her hand at fencing and took to it immediately. “From the first day I tried it, I loved the interplay of its cerebral and physical aspects, the strategy and the elegance.” By the time she was twelve, she was fencing five days a week.
Barrett, who is a senior women’s épée fencer won her first medal in a national competition (silver) in the United States at the age of twelve. There has been no stopping her since. She won the South African National Championships four times (2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015), and was a bronze medallist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Scotland. She also led her team to an All-African Games Gold Medal in Brazzaville in 2015. In April 2016, Barrett became the youngest person ever to qualify for the Olympics in women’s épée, and the first South African fencer ever to qualify as an individual rather than as part of a team.
However, Sascoc (the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee) failed to submit her paperwork on time, meaning that Barrett never made it to Rio, something she is suing the body for. “As an athlete, I’m used to failure. That’s how you learn and get better. But this was a new sensation because I hadn’t failed; I had done what I had dreamed to do and qualified for Rio. And yet I felt helpless, as I watched Sascoc passively give away my dream.”
Barrett’s talent was recognised by Northwestern University in Illinois in the United States, which offered her a scholarship. She captained the college’s épée team, and enjoyed considerable success as a student athlete, before graduating with a degree in political science. She is currently based in New York City, where she works full time in corporate marketing.
“Assuming I can pull together the resources to train at the level necessary to achieve high performance, I intend to train for Tokyo 2020,” she says. “In the course of that process, I am intent on winning Commonwealth Games in 2018 and All African Games in 2019.”
— Fatima Asmal