The saber makes Leonardo Morghen feel strong, even when the 8-year-old is scared or upset. The protective fencing suit hides his insecurities. And the first-place medals serve as an affirmation that he's just like other kids. They also underscore the fight that Leonardo has in him - both on and off the fencing strip.
The saber makes Leonardo Morghen feel strong, even when the 8-year-old is scared or upset.
The protective fencing suit hides his insecurities.
And the first-place medals serve as an affirmation that he’s just like other kids.
They also underscore the fight that Leonardo has in him — both on and off the fencing strip.
The second-grader at Maryland Avenue Elementary School in Bexley was born with a rare gastrological condition that makes eating painful.
Three years ago, he and his illness — at the time, he hadn’t had solid foods for three weeks — became the subject of a Dispatch story. Leonardo and his parents, Michele Morghen and Susanna Berlendis, had come to Columbus from their home in northern Italy for treatment at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
The family has since moved to central Ohio, and, with Leonardo’s health improving, the boy has found some normalcy — and a notable passion — in fencing.
He will compete this morning in the Arnold Fencing Classic at the Hyatt Regency.
“From the first day, Leo was incredible,” said Julia Richey, his fencing coach at Royal Arts Fencing Academy in Gahanna. “He has more challenges in one week than most have in life. He is in the hospital a lot with surgeries, but the moment he can stand up, he is here in classes.”
For several years, Leonardo’s parents had searched for a sport their son might play.
The balls in basketball, soccer and tennis, his mother said, are too hard to risk damaging Leonardo’s gastric pacemaker, which limits his symptoms through electrical stimulation.
Swimming is impossible because of the ileostomy surgery Leonardo underwent to bring the end of his small intestine to the skin surface, where his waste collects in a bag.
Fencing, with the required protective gear, proved doable — and he instantly took to it.
The sport not only allows him to burn off energy and frustration, he said, but has also taught him to trust his body and himself more.
“Like when I have a problem or when I need to stay by myself.”
Leonardo is typically alone at lunchtime, remaining in a classroom while schoolmates head to the cafeteria (so he doesn’t have to stare at food he can’t eat).
He didn’t want to stand on the sidelines with sports, too.
“It’s very hard for him,” his mother said. “He’s fought for all his life. He’s fought his health problems.“For a long time, he thought he was very different from other kids. Fencing allowed him to see this is not true.”
As quickly as he picked up fencing, Leonardo picked up English.
After traveling throughout Europe looking for someone to treat their son, his parents found Dr. Carlo Di Lorenzo — chief of pediatric gastroenterology at Nationwide, who is also Italian — in 2009.
Leonardo and his mother commuted from Italy — most of the time without Dad and older brother Davide, now 12 — until the whole family moved to Bexley in August 2011. Michele Morghen commutes to Mason for his job at Luxottica, an Italian eyewear company. Although Leonardo no longer relies on a tube to deliver nutrition directly to his stomach as he did when he first visited Columbus, he still can’t eat more than a few bites at a sitting.
He also undergoes regular calcium infusions — an outpatient treatment that strengthens his bones but also makes him feel ill for a few days afterward.
Though he is new to fencing, Richey said, Leonardo shows promise.
“He’s actually very good,” his coach said. “He will push. He loves to fence with the adults — the big kids.”
Just competing at the Arnold Classic won’t be enough for the boy; he wants to win “a good medal."
After winning his first fencing tournament ever in November, he wore his medal to the hospital. His mother couldn’t help feeling her son’s pride.“He said, ‘Mom, I win like all the other kids,’?” Berlendis recalled. “I was very emotional.”
For now, Leonardo uses the saber, one of three fencing weapons.
Sabers have flat blades, Richey said, and saber fencers attack with the side of the blade instead of the tip used in epee or foil.
To protect his gastric pacemaker, Leonardo wears an extra pad around his abdomen under his fencing suit.
Berlendis said her son feels most normal when on the strip. Although he tires quickly, he isn’t one to say, “Stop.”
“He’s always been a resilient, feisty young man,” Di Lorenzo said.
Considering how physical fencing is, the doctor said he was a bit surprised that his patient could handle the sport.
“But given how determined Leonardo is,” he added, “I shouldn’t be surprised.”a firstname.lastname@example.org