Modern-day Zorros

Sense of adventure attracts newcomers to fencing
By Rowena Coetsee

SWORDS FULLY EXTENDED, the two youngsters lunged at their instructor. Forward and back, back and forward they shuffled, weapons pointed at his chest. This was no attack, however.

The gymnasium didn't reverberate with the sounds of clashing metal; there was none of the dueling that made legends of Errol Flynn and The Three Musketeers. This was just a routine Saturday morning drill, a couple of kids working on their balance and hand-eye coordination. And yet it's the romance and adventure of fencing that draws newcomers to the sport.

"People do like the image of the swashbuckling swords," said Thelma Alane, fencing instructor and co-founder of Concord's Sword Play Fencing Academy.

"It's a way to play with swords without going back in time. It's a way to pretend. A lot of people who are involved do it because they're very imaginative people. They have very active fantasy lives."

Waiting to take his turn on the floor, Antioch High School senior Robert Tabacco said he grew up admiring the likes of Zorro and Robin Hood. Their prowess with swords held far more appeal for Tabacco than the usual team sports.

"In gym we'd play basketball and it was just a bunch of guys yelling at each other;" he said. "It wasn't fun."

There's no ragging on teammates after a loss in a fencing match, however; because the sport is largely an individual pursuit -you win or lose on your own merits, he said. "If I do well, it's me that's doing well. If I don't, then I know the blame's on myself," Tabacco said.

Similarly, one can't get away with hanging back as one could, say, on a crowded soccer field, Alane said. "You have to be willing to get in there," she said. "Couch potatoes won't want to apply."

The 18-year-old Tabacco has been competing for four years and enters tournaments every time he can. He also takes part in weekly "bashes" at the studio, where he and a small group of other students spend up to several hours practicing their techniques.

Fencing's a mind game, he said, and Tabacco loves playing by his wits. "I don’t get a lot of joy physically dominating someone. In football, the guys go through each other," he said. In fencing, touching one's opponent with the weapon—the way to score points requires mental agility and strategy, he said.

One way of racking up points is to catch your opponents off-guard to trick them into thinking you’re about to strike elsewhere, Alane said. That takes concentration, she said.

"There are those who like the fact that it offers a challenge to your mind," she said. "It's not like you're sitting on a bike reading a magazine or jogging down the street with your mind on things from work. You can’t be, or you'll be hit. You've got to... make your decision relative to the person who's across from you."

Becoming an accomplished fencer nonetheless requires certain physical abilities. Good balance and hand-eye coordination separate serious competitors from the weekend warriors, Alane said. "There are people who seem to have two left feet. They can have fun, but they're probably not going to make the Olympics," she said.

Fencing has been a part of those global games since they began in 1896 and is one of only four sports to be included in every Olympics since, said Colleen Mar of the U.S. Fencing Association. The Colorado Springs, Co.-based organization represents about 350 clubs and 12,500 individual members, although there are an estimated 150,000 fencers in the United States.

Most of them are men, but the gender gap has shrunk considerably. Two sisters, Felicia and Iris Zimmermann not only claim the distinction of being the best fencers in the country but they broke new ground. Felicia was the first American to become a World Cup Champion in 1995. Two years later; her sister followed suit and became the second to claim that title.

Thousands of other female competitors - Alane included - aren't put off by the inherent risks of thrusting and parrying with pointed metal sticks. Fencing isn't as dangerous as it might look, however. The most common injuries aren't skewered eyeballs but sprained ankles, sore knees and tendinitis, Alane said. Face masks and other protective clothing make injuries less likely when fencing than when playing baseball and football.

Tabacco dismisses suggestions that fencing is dangerous. "We've had hundreds of years to develop safety in the sport," he said.

You can learn more about fencing by contacting the Sword Play Fencing Academy at 687-9883 or by email .