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Piers Gilliver: Overcoming months of concussion and running an antiques business View all news


Piers Gilliver was a world away from elite international competition while sat at home in Bath struggling to focus early this year. He tried to cook but couldn’t remember how. He spoke with others but couldn’t hold the conversation. Then when he tried to relax by watching a film he found he couldn’t follow the story.

Gilliver had sustained a concussion while sparring in January, which stopped the wheelchair fencer not only from training and competing, but from completing basic life tasks too. He couldn’t stand light or sound, and describes enduring a sickness similar to severe jet lag.

It took seven months of gradual progress for Piers to return to the piste, where he won double gold in spectacular style at the Warsaw World Cup. Life with concussion may have seemed behind him following such an overachievement upon returning – but even today the fencer continues to struggle with his symptoms.

These are the realities of recovering from serious concussion, something Gilliver feels isn’t recognised enough in sport. It can be a long-term condition and it affects everyone differently. Some athletes will feel symptoms for a matter of hours, and some for several months.

But Gilliver is recovering well, as his symptoms pass quicker and his brain copes better with the intensity of elite sport.

He tells the BEAA: “The problem with concussion is that in sports in general it’s not really talked about enough and you only really hear about it through rugby or boxing, those heavy head-impact sports. When you think about fencing, the speed and power used to hit someone with a sword is basically the same as boxing, so it’s not surprising it happened when you look at it from that perspective.

“With this injury, it’s so individual and hard to track. It’s not like tennis elbow which you know how to manage. A head injury is such a strange one so it’s a case of seeing how it goes individually, week by week.”

Thankfully Gilliver had British Fencing support staff available to guide his recovery. Despite naturally wanting to return to competition, the fencer was encouraged to focus on his non-sporting goals first.

“The fencing part was almost the lowest priority,” he says of the preparation to compete. “It wasn’t purely physical. Could my brain deal with that much stimulus, that environment, the light, the noise? Could I train those senses? The other side is, having had the training drop-off for so many months, there was such a big risk of getting a physical injury by suddenly ramping up. It was a case of training your brain to get used to it and the body to stay in one piece when you get there.

“The earliest steps were just to see if I could get out of the house, walk around the block, build that up. Then actually the plan became simple things like having dinner with a friend, which before was pretty difficult.

“As I got closer to the competition it got more fencing-specific, and actually I’d try and make my days as long as possible to deal with that. Then I’d go to the local fencing club in Bristol. I wouldn’t fence, but I would just be in that environment, talk to new people, hear the noise, and try to train myself for what the competition would be like.”

The approach worked in phenomenal style, as Gilliver’s two latest gold medals attest.

“You naturally have the question of: ‘It’s been months now. Will I ever get back to competing?’ So in this last competition [Warsaw] I had no expectation at all. I just wanted to be able to fence, to do the first match, probably lose and that was fine – I just wanted to be on-piste.

“I’d had no competition practice, so the goal was to turn up for one event. After the first event it was such a shock and the second day was also a question from the start: will the second day be too much and set me back? On the morning I felt okay so made the decision to give it a go and to win gold in that was very surreal. It was beyond all expectations.”

Having spent months on the sidelines Gilliver will be happy to be back at the coalface of his sport. But he has other interests to sustain him when the sabres are laid down: the fencer runs a part-time antiques business.

“I’ve always been a bit of a history geek,” he says with a smile. “Ever since I was a kid I found reading history fascinating, so eventually I carried on as a passion and it turned into a small online business where I’m buying and selling military antiques, mostly from the World Wars.”

He says his most prized possession currently is an original, unpublished photograph from the Titanic, which he found tucked away with some military-based postcards.

Sharing his advice for other athletes looking to run a business of their own, Gilliver says: “When I started out in the sport it was very much a case of giving 100%… I think looking back I wouldn’t change that. For me it’s so important that if you’re going to pursue something you do it 100%.

“But I do believe that elite sport is very high-pressure. Every day you’re looking for small improvements, obsessing over one topic. So having something on the side is a great thing because it gives you a way to get out of that sport zone, something different that you can switch your brain off for.

“Having some backup is always good too, because sport is very inconsistent and quite scary – whether it’s funding cuts or, for me, a concussion that could quite easily end the career. It’s a high-risk thing to try and go full-time in a sport, so having something on the side is also good.

“For me fencing always has to take priority. So find something that fits in around it. For example, a lot of what I buy and sell is through eBay, so in a few minutes between sessions I can quickly go on my phone, post something new and the nice thing with a shop is that everything sits there until someone buys it. You don’t need to constantly give the time.

“A lot of this kind of thing is finding something you can do alongside sport so you can commit as much as you want around sport and be quite flexible.”

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