Gillian Sheen obituary

Fencer known for her style and classical technique who won gold for Britain at the 1956 Olympics

Gillian Sheen, who has died aged 92, was the first and so far only Briton to win a fencing gold medal at the Olympics, which she took in Australia in the 1956 women’s individual foil competition. Given that Great Britain has been represented in fencing at every Games other than 1896 and 1904, her achievement stands in splendid isolation – a peak in a sport traditionally dominated by the French and Italians.

Sheen was a dental surgeon by day, and it was said that she worked up great power in her wrists through pulling teeth. But in fact she relied more on style than strength, and was known for her classical technique during an era that was beginning to witness a new brand of athleticism in the sport.

Although she was happy to acknowledge that “it’s good to walk and skip; anything really for the legs and flexibility”, Sheen was more enthusiastic in her advocacy of steak with watercress and a glass of burgundy after a practice session, and preferred to focus on her fencing master Léon Bertrand’s adage that “the best training for fencing is fencing”.

Gillian Sheen at the 1956 Olympics. She told journalists interviewing her about her victory that ‘mother and father will be pleased’.
Gillian Sheen at the 1956 Olympics. She told journalists interviewing her about her victory that ‘mother and father will be pleased’. Photograph: PPP

Her favoured routine in the two years that led up to the gold medal was a lesson at her fencing club after work, followed by a bout against anyone who happened to be available, regardless of their ability. “Even if you fenced someone who was weaker, you still had to find out their tactics and timing,” she said.

That regime proved to be excellent preparation for the 1956 Olympics, even if the four-day flight from London via New York, San Francisco, Hawaii, Fiji and Sydney took the edge off her readiness. Sheen, then aged 28, had by that stage won several British national championships, but she arrived in Melbourne as a rank outsider, and despite starting well in the first-round stage had a struggle in the semi-final rounds, in which she managed only two wins out of five.

However, an ice-cool last-ditch victory against the Hungarian world champion, Lídia Dömölky, narrowly took her into the round-robin final pool. There she lost her opening match to the strong Romanian Olga Orbán, but responded with a dazzling run of six victories, most of them knife-edge encounters. Finishing level with Orbán at the top of the finals group table, she was pitched into a winner-takes-all bout for the gold medal.

In that tense one-off “barrage” match, Sheen took a 3-1 lead before being pegged back to 3-2 and then, as Orbán tried to aggressively wrest away the initiative, parried well to secure the winning hit at 4-2. Rushing out wildly to congratulate the new Olympic champion, the British team manager, Charles de Beaumont, slipped spectacularly on the well-polished stage, narrowly avoiding impalement on Sheen’s foil.

De Beaumont was not the only person to be surprised by the win – there were no British journalists even covering the event, and when Sheen told foreign reporters in her post-match interview that “mother and father will be pleased about that”, the comment had to be relayed back home via agency reports.

Mother and father – Ethel (nee Powell) and Ronald Sheen, an acccountant in the City – were a well-to-do couple living in St John’s Wood, north London. Sheen was born in Willesden, and took up fencing as a boarder at the North Foreland Lodge school for girls, based during the second world war in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire. At the Salle Bertrand fencing club in London, she became Bertrand’s pupil. After winning the British schoolgirls’ title in 1945 and then the British junior championship in 1947, she studied dentistry at University College hospital in London, where she won the ladies’ universities championship a record five times in a row.

Gillian Sheen competing in 1957

Sheen took the first of her 10 British championship titles in 1949, and after winning gold at the World Student Games in 1951 she was selected to appear in her first Olympics, in 1952 in Helsinki, where she was unable to get beyond the second round of the foil event.

Two years later, by which time she had become a member of the London Fencing Club and was working as a dental house surgeon at the National Dental hospital in London, she won silver in the individual foil at the 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Canada. Yet when the next Olympics came around in 1956 she was still considered a fringe contender in a field of 23 participants drawn from 11 countries.

The 1956 Games were the first Olympics to use electronic scoring apparatus for judging, and Sheen found the innovation improved her focus. “It was a feature that really helped me,” she recalled years later. “I felt so much more confidence that the hits would be clean and clear, and no question about it.”

She was also aided by the fact that the reigning Olympic champion, Irene Camber-Corno of Italy, was absent from the competition, expecting a baby. Nonetheless, it was a surprise that she got so far in the tournament and even more of an upset that she went on to win it.

Gillian Sheen, left, in action against Regine Veronnet of France in Rome, where in 1960 she failed to retain her Olympic title.
Gillian Sheen, left, in action against Regine Veronnet of France in Rome, where in 1960 she failed to retain her Olympic title. Photograph: AP

Now at the top of her game, Sheen went on to victory in the Scandinavian championship in 1957 and won a gold medal at the 1958 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff. Her final British championship win came in 1960, the year she defended her Olympic title in Rome. But her sojourn there lasted only into the second round, and at the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Australia she could finish no better than fifth in the individual foil.

She had met an American orthodontist, Bob Donaldson, while she was competing at the 1958 world championships in Philadelphia. They married in 1962 and Sheen quit the sport the following year, leaving her job as dental house surgeon at St Pancras hospital in London to move to the US with Bob. Subsequently she concentrated on raising their four children in New Jersey and, although she kept up her British citizenship, they remained in the US for the rest of their lives.

After quitting fencing, Gillian Sheen settled in the US with her husband
After retiring from fencing, Gillian Sheen settled in the US with her husband Photograph: FAMILY PHOTO

In the late 1980s, when her children had grown up, Sheen opened a dental clinic on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, working in spells there each year until 1995, when a volcanic eruption buried the building in ash and she was forced to give up the venture.

Despite being away from the UK, she made sure to keep in touch with British fencing activities, flying back for special events (including the 2012 London Olympics) and donating money to support the development of young fencers. In New Jersey she coached fencing at her local community college until she was 80, and in 2019 she was made MBE for services to the sport.

In an interview in her 80s Sheen revealed that memories of being presented with her gold medal in Australia still had the power to produce goosebumps. “I keep the medal in a silver box, and I have it on the coffee table in the living room,” she said. “It’s something I can see, but not too in-your-face.”

Bob died in 2004. She is survived by their children, Bruce, John, Jane and David, and 11 grandchildren.

• Gillian Mary Sheen, fencer and dental surgeon, born 21 August 1928; died 5 July 2021


Peter Mason

The GuardianTramp

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