The Incredible Fencer Ujlaky-Rejto Ildiko: The Deaf Olympic Champion

ujlaky-Rejto IldikoShe is one of the greatest fencers of all time, winning two gold medals at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games on a strong Hungarian squad, one in individual foil, and another in team foil, four years after winning a team silver medal in Rome. She went on win silver and bronze medals in Mexico City, Munich and Montreal, for a total of seven medals over five Olympic Games.

And Ujlaky-Rejto Ildiko was deaf.

And just as true in Budapest as it is anywhere else in the world, a child with differences – in this case, ear pieces, reading lips and general inability to react to the sounds of the world around her – gets mocked and mired in low self-esteem.

While it is hard to find verbatim comments in English by Ildiko, there is this quote from a deaf fencer named Jennifer Gibson, who explains the challenge. “Being the only one at school who wore hearing aids was not easy and in fact, it was extremely difficult. It was the same with sports, I was the only kid who wore hearing aids on the teams I’ve played on. At the time, in the 70‘s and 80‘s, most teachers and coaches were ill prepared to deal with someone like me. They lacked the proper training and understanding on how to teach to people with a disability, particularly hearing loss. It was essentially a whole new ball game for all of us. From a very young age, I’ve had to be very forward about my hearing loss and inform the teachers or coaches that I couldn’t hear them, particularly in large or noisy environments. Very few of them took the initiative to find alternative means of communicating with me such as using a clipboard or talking to me one on one.”

ildiko at tokyo games
Ildiko, left, competing at the 1964 Olympic Games

Ildiko likely had similar experiences to Gibson, except decades earlier. She picked up fencing at 15. She worked with coaches who instructed her by giving feedback and direction on paper. But there is no getting around the fact that hearing the clash of blades is key feedback to the fencer. Again, here is Gibson explaining the challenge for deaf fencers: “One issue is that some fencing calls rely on hearing the blades come in contact with each other which means I am unable to do that. Bear in mind that it’s also very difficult to see the fencers faces due to the tight metal weave of the mask. When they try to talk to me while wearing the mask, I actually hear very little.”

But as we see from time to time, those with the will to overcome challenges often find a way to slingshot to phenomenal accomplishment.

women's hungarian foil team 1964_Ildiko 2nd left
Ildiko with the Hungarian women’s foil team (2nd from left)