Yasmine Serwah Fosu is on a mission. To make history for Ghana as the first athlete to qualify for the Olympic Games in her sport of fencing and break the North African domination of this sport for the African Continent.
Fencing is one of the original 5 disciplines included since the very first Olympic Games. It has been dominated by European nations joined by other Continental athletes from America and Asia more recently. In Africa it is a new sport but the North African nations have asserted a strong presence in the last 20 years. At the London Olympics in 2012, An Egyptian fencer made history by being the first from the African Zone to win a medal at the Olympic Games in this noble sport. That precedent inspired the young Ghanaian Fencer Yasmine Serwah Fosu.
‘I watched all the fencing events at the London Olympic Games and I was so inspired.’ Says Yasmine Serwah, named after her great Grandmother from Kumasi who had 12 daughters. I had already been fencing since the age of 8 and competing nationally in the UK for a couple of years.
I was already National British U11 Champion when I got spotted at the English Youth Championships and offered a scholarship to train at Plymouth College which boasted 4 youth Olympians including two medal winners in Swimming and Diving at the London Olympics.
The following year I was offered a scholarship by Millfield School which was amazing. Millfield is probably the best school for combining sports and academics at a high level in the UK. They’ve had Olympians in a variety of disciplines at every Olympic Games since 1956. It was a huge honour to be given a scholarship by such a prestigious school. We even have Olympic Gold medals by a former student displayed in our reception! I knew I wanted to be part of that School legacy but to do so representing Ghana.’
‘The President of the Ghana Olympic Committee Professor Francis Dodoo kindly made time to see me on his visit to London during the Olympic Games. I’d already made enough points for selection as a GB Cadet athlete, but I had not signed up yet, so I thought hard about who I was and who I wanted to be and knew that as a young African and Ghanaian my duty was to my flag. Meeting the President of the Ghana Olympic Committee was awesome. He set records as an athlete for Ghana himself and he really understood and encouraged me. ‘Since 2013 I’ve been fencing for Ghana internationally. I’ve learned so much.
This is a sport that takes time to mature. It’s not purely physical but also a hugely tactical sport. To compete at a Senior level successfully for a young person is very rare. And you need to have access to a variety of sparring partners all the time to improve. As a Ghanaian training in the UK I can access the facilities and coaching and the sparring opportunities to bring honour to my nation and my Ghanaian family.
I’ve learned so much about the history of our great Nation, about Ghanaian contribution to society on a global stage, and most importantly being the proud flag bearer for my country all over the world often setting precedents. Ghana has always been first in so many things and I just see what I’m doing as a continuation of that kind of Ghanaian personality. It’s in our DNA.’
In the last three years Yasmine has managed to cause major upset in many different zones by being the ‘Black Star’ of competitions. ‘Our family motto is work hard and make yourself useful! I know I’m representing my country but also setting a precedent for young African girls both in Africa and abroad in the diaspora. There is no reason why our African talent should not represent the motherland no matter where we end up in our lives.
We are ALL GHANAIANS and I’m proud of that. It gives me enormous pride when athletes from other nations talk to me about Ghana and I’m super proud to represent. I’ve many friends through my fencing from other African countries and we all share our stories and our experiences. Realistically I have 4 Olympic cycles ahead of me and because I started out young and have had high level training I believe 100% I can reach the standard necessary to reach this goal in my sport which requires access to sparring opponents not just physical training.
A lot of young girls my age don’t want to do sports as they prefer to ‘fit in’ with stereotypes. Or maybe their families don’t support girls doing sports. In my family no one ever did any sport! But I just kept insisting until they finally got the message! I like to compete. You learn a lot about yourself from winning and losing. I love the respect I earn on and off the piste with GHANA emblazoned on my back.
I had to deal with a lot of prejudice from all sides, boys, other girls, even Ghanaians, but I think you just have to believe in yourself and keep going and the results speak for themselves. If I have the opportunity to train with the best and compete against the best, I have to take it. To do anything less would be a waste of blessings and opportunities.’
Since competing for the National flag, Yasmine has won several titles. Three time Bronze medal winner in the African Zone, Yasmine was the first athlete of any gender to break the North African monopoly on medals in the African zone in 2014. ‘I think it’s good to diversify the sport and competition. And the International Federation for Fencing (the FIE) is supporting new Federations all over Africa. Recently I collected unwanted sports equipment and took it to the Championship for distribution to other Federations who can use it for training young people at local clubs in Africa. I’m going to do more of that and also extend it to other sports. I’ve recently collected enough hockey sticks to kit out a whole team! And I’ve only just started!’
As a child Yasmine was encouraged to play music but it was her passion in sports that always took over. ‘Instead of playing instruments, Yasmine wanted to play Lacrosse, netball and Hockey and she always made Captain of the team.’ Says her mother Kimi Zabihyan.
‘I used to turn up to watch her play Lacrosse and all the other mums would tell me how good she was and I just thought they were being kind or polite. I never really took it seriously. But once she discovered Fencing she kept going on about it like a bad toothache until I finally understood how much she loved competing. When she was 11 she told me ‘Mum it sounds silly to say this but I REALLY want to make it to the Olympics.’
Yasmine says ‘it was kind of embarrassing saying that but my mum said well someone has to go so why not you?’
‘I was the only girl signed up for fencing at school and it was really awkward so I didn’t want to go the second week but my friend said she would go with me and that made it ok. We started showing up and beating the boys and pretty soon I was winning competitions and spending more time training. At the age of 10, I went on my first camp to Hungary for a week and it was awesome. I just wanted to do more after that. I love Fencing because it’s an individual sport. There’s nowhere to hide and no excuses. There’s no team to blame or hide behind. It’s just you and the opponent and I like the one on one aspect of the sport. You have to really concentrate as the tiniest of margins changes everything.’
Yasmine is current British Public Schools Champion in 3 weapons; a prestigious tournament that has been running for over 150 years and brings together over 1200 fencers from all over Britain and is considered to be the biggest youth tournament in Europe. ‘This is the third year in a row I’ve made the podium in Britain as Champion at Arms while representing Ghana. I’m pretty sure it’s the first time an African student has been crowned British School’s Champion! I won it in 2014 in the U14 category, in 2015 I won the Silver Medal U16, and I won the Gold medal again for U16 this year. It’s the prize given for best athlete in 3 weapons in the country.’
Yasmine knows she has a long road ahead with hours to dedicate to training and perfecting.
‘It does not phase me. It’s what I’m working for. To make history for my country, for Africa and for myself and to show girls like me to just go for it! Living and training in the UK has given me a great opportunity to spar against a variety of European opponents and that will give me the edge to make me world class.
‘You have to face competition to beat the competition and you have to push yourself all the time to be the best. There’s no easy road and sometimes it’s exhausting and often painful! I’ve had to sacrifice a lot of hours and time with friends and just doing normal teenage stuff but it’s worth it. And I find more and more people are now supporting my efforts and in my corner to do well and that motivates me to work even harder.’
Yasmine recognises that without encouragement and support from many around her she could not have got so far. ‘The biggest support is my family in Ghana and in the UK and my coaches who believe in me and have given me so much of their time. My school has given me a scholarship and always acknowledges me in assemblies which is really cool.
But it’s been REALLY important to have support and acknowledgement from our leaders in high places such as our High Commissioner in London His Excellency Victor Emmanuel Smith who invited me for a visit to the High Commission and gave me a big pat on the back! That really inspired me. And Lord Paul Boateng of Brent and Akeym who’s really been awesome with his support. The Sports Ministers in Ghana especially Dr Mustapha Ahmed really encouraged me to keep going. And I’m really looking forward to meeting the new Minister of Sports and Youth Honourable Nii Lantey Okunka hopefully soon to share with him my African Continental medals.’
‘ The highlight was definitely last year meeting His Excellency President John Dramani Mahama and the Vice President of Ghana Amissah-Arthur after I won the African Bronze medal and my results at the Commonwealth Championship which I was really proud of as I finished 10th in the Commonwealth. Ghana was the only other African nation in top 10 other than South Africa. It was a great day at Flagstaff House meeting my President.’
At the tender age of 15, Yasmine is currently top 10 in several zones – on the African Continent, also in the Mediterranean Zone where she finished 7th at the recent Mediterranean Championships, and in the Commonwealth Zone where she finished 10th at the recent Commonwealth Cadet & Junior Championships.
Although she still has one more year in Cadets Under 17s, she also competes in Juniors U20 and Seniors concurrently, punching well above her weight. ‘Physically and mentally it’s tough going up against grown women athletes but it’s hugely satisfying when I win too. I just think of them as another fight with another opponent. Now I just have to keep up the pace and keep training.’ In the Under 20s and Senior categories Yasmine has finished in top 10 in the African Zone.
Yasmine’s recent result at the African Senior Championships was a remarkable achievement where she finished 10th in a category that included the Tunisian Fencer who is currently no 3 in the world and a South African 24-year-old who trains in the US and qualified for the Rio Olympic Games.
‘I love fencing the more experienced Senior women and being in the ‘top 10 club’. It’s a good feeling when you beat a 6 foot woman with long reach with years of experience under her belt but equally it’s a really good lesson to lose to someone really experienced and learn from it and make sure next time it’s a different outcome. You have to analyse every match and learn from it.’
‘We are a fencing community off the piste and they often give me feedback and tell me what I could do to be even better. It’s really cool that as a 15-year-old I’m learning from these experienced world class athletes and to earn the respect of my senior peers. Coaches of other National teams sometimes come over and congratulate me if I put in a good performance even if I lose because it’s about how you perform and how I’m developing and learning from each competition. Many of them have invited me to train with their National teams, in Tunisia, in Algeria, in Sweden.
I’ve been really blessed in being invited for training by the Chinese National coach and also the French coach Daniel Levavasseur who has trained several world champions and Olympic medallists from many different nations. He’s a legend! But he only speaks French so I think I have to brush up on my language skills this summer!’
Yasmine’s performance has caught the attention of many in the fencing community. ‘I am a Ghanaian through and through. It’s my identity. I want to represent not only my flag in competition but also later in life in my work.’
Yasmine is currently juggling 10 GCSEs including Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. ‘I would like to study International relations or development studies. I also have to work hard at my studies to get the grades I need to get into a top University. I’m dedicated to my studies, my sport, my flag and my family. There’s not much time for anything else but if you enjoy what you’re doing it’s all good, and I feel blessed and grateful!’
When asked what her biggest challenge is she says ‘to be accepted as a Ghanaian girl in my own country and internationally. There are so many prejudiced views in the world regarding race and identity but for my generation the boundaries are shifting. We are surrounded by diversity and we have to strive to be inclusive and tolerant of the global world because my generation feels more connected to the rest of the world through modern technology than the previous generations. I want to be a part of that future. I want young girls to feel they have the power to define themselves and be who they want to be.’
Yasmine’s next outing is at the British Youth Championships in Sheffield in May. It’s the 4th year in a row she has qualified to participate. ‘Though I have Ghana printed on my back and represent Ghana, I have the opportunity to participate at British Youth events. It’s a great feeling to walk around with GHANA on your kit especially when you’re winning! Other girls of African or Caribbean heritage see it is possible to represent the identity of your heritage.
Many have started to switch to their motherland federations. That’s cool in my world. It means my generation is more confident in our own identity. We’re connected to our roots, our heritage and our Continent no matter where we are. And it feels right that Ghana should be at the forefront of that. I can’t express how grateful I am and how blessed I feel to be a young Ghanaian representing my country. It gives me strength to look forward.’
Lord Paul Boateng of Brent and Akeym says; ‘Yasmine is now a true African Champion. Her recent success at the African Championships represents a big step for fencing in Sub-Saharan Africa. She is blazing a trail in a sport where Africa and its diaspora are too rarely represented.
Yet any visit to a museum will show that swordsmanship has been practised in Africa for centuries, with some of the finest pieces of work emanating from the Kingdom of Ghana to which Yasmine can trace her ancestry. Brent and Ghana can justly be proud of this rising ‘Black Star’.
Next month Yasmine will turn 16. She has a lot of work ahead to reach her Olympic goal but for now she can take pride in her African Continental medals and her UK medals. ‘The trophy cabinet is full so now she has started giving her medals to her Grandmother to display in her home. We are all so proud of her achievements and who she is as a young person.’ says Yasmine’s mother.
It’s been a year of hard work. Asked if she’s looking forward to her birthday next month and what she plans Yasmine says ‘just having a pizza with my friends that’s all…. Although,’ she adds ‘I would LOVE a new sword!’