Many of us have been gripped by an exciting two weeks of sport at the Commonwealth Games this summer. This month Alumni Voices caught up with graduating student, Henry Patient, who attended the Commonwealth Games as part of the Team England Futures Programme.
Which hall were you in?
Which subjects are your Masters and Undergraduate degree in?
I did my York undergraduate degree in Maths and my Masters in Data Science.
What’s your fondest memory of York University?
The Christmas holidays of my second year. I was still up in York and the campus was completely dead but all the lakes were frozen over. Some of my housemates and I would go on walks around the campus, looking for ducks around the frozen lakes.
How did you initially get into wheelchair fencing?
I started fencing at York initially, in the able-bodied fencing section. I just picked it up and then I got really invested as I became President of the university fencing club. I was also treasurer this year and through that I was able to network with local fencers. One of those people was a coach from Durham University, who just happened to be a qualified wheelchair coach. He put me in contact with the wider disability fencing group and I started going to domestic competitions.
I think it’s really important to encourage people to sign up to these communities via societies at the university – they help you realise what your next steps could be.
How did attending the International Wheelchair Fencing Training Camp and Satellite World Cup in France help advance your wheelchair fencing career?
My first big international competition was for ‘Power Sport’. It was really important as you need to go to an international event in order to be classified as a disabled athlete. As a result of the competition I became a formally qualified international member so I was able to take part in bigger international competitions, make my name more well known and familiarise myself with the GB squad.
The actual experience was very positive because it allowed me to get a much better grasp of the world standard and perspective of where I ranked. As wheelchair fencing is quite a niche sport, particularly in the UK, it’s hard to get a good grasp of where you really sit in the global hierarchy without going to these sorts of events.
All the networking that came out of it was really beneficial, meeting the senior squad and their coaches was very useful. It facilitated me starting this journey towards being a full-time international athlete as opposed to just a domestic one.
What is the Team England Futures program that you’re on now and how are you involved with the Commonwealth Games?
Team England Futures is a support network made up of staff (personal trainers, sports psychologists, PR, marketing and social media outreach) and a development programme for athletes who could compete at the Commonwealth games. It’s a supplementary programme, funded by Sport England, for athletes who are given Sports Aid grants.
The program consists of two pathways for Commonwealth games athletes; ‘Preparation’, for athletes who are already world class and will have their debut at this Commonwealth games; and ‘Potential’, a support network and development program – that I’m on – for those who plan to be in the next cycle of athletes to compete at the 2026 Commonwealth Games. Team England Futures took a group of us to Birmingham for the Commonwealth games in August to familiarise us with the games, deal with behind the scenes preparation, attend training workshops and talk to athletes who are already at competition level.
What’s your training schedule like?
Yorkshire is a bit of a wheelchair fencing wasteland so I’ve only been able to take part in the able-bodied category as I couldn’t find a wheelchair coach. That’s why I’m going down to Bath as it’s a wheelchair fencing hub. Starting in September I will be training five or six days a week with a coach in Bath or Bristol. Hopefully, I’ll end up staying there so I can train full-time.
What impact has your Masters in Data Science and Wheelchair Fencing career allowed you to have on the world so far?
The reason I got into data science was because I wanted my job to have a meaningful impact on people’s lives. My dissertation was on using data science for food safety, working out whether samples of meat had ‘adulterants’ in them, which can lead to detection of mad cow disease. It isn’t very glamorous but, for me, it’s a way to use fancy technology to improve people’s lives in small ways. In the future I’d like to study the detection of weather patterns for crop growing or farming through satellites.
As for the sporting element, I think that if the training I am doing now culminates in me being a commonwealth games athlete and allows me to become a public figure, I would love to inspire the next generation of paralympians as I remember being inspired by them as a child. When you are a young disabled child, it’s difficult to compete on a level playing field, even in the small things like PE lessons. There is always a nagging background dread. Seeing paralympians doing these incredible things helps you realise that you can do those things too. Sport is a way of getting around disability having an impact on your everyday life. I think it gives this drive and ability to adapt, work through it, work around it and not let the disability impact your entire life because obviously it does have a very definite impact on our day to day lives.
It also provides a good way of networking and a supportive community, as when I was younger I didn’t know anyone growing up with my disability but mine is actually one of the most common disabilities in wheelchair fencing. Organisations that help kids with disabilities through sports and social outreach are so valuable and have such an impact.
Do you have any alumni wisdom to share?
Really throw yourself into a university society. Lots of people casually engage with societies but the more you put in, the more you will get out of it. For me it ended up being fencing but it could have been volleyball or another activity – it doesn’t need to be a sport necessarily.
Doing an activity three or four times a week with the same group of people for three years means they become some of your best friends, it provides a different support network to your course friends or housemates. It’s a really beneficial tool to meet people outside of your hall or course with different life experiences.
I would recommend everybody at least give it a go, as it really enhanced my university experience. My life would have been totally different if I hadn’t thrown myself into the fencing society from day one – now it’s created a core part of my identity, my life and my future.