Fencing is foil to old sport blues

Eric Hood, the fencing instructor at the shared school, reminds his students to repost — strike back — after parrying an opponent’s attack. - Matt Johnson
Eric Hood, the fencing instructor at the shared school, reminds his students to repost — strike back — after parrying an opponent’s attack.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

Every Tuesday and Friday morning, when the weather is dry, about 40 students at the South Whidbey Shared School Cooperative grab their swords and run outside to fight.

It's not as wild as it sounds. Not only do they grab their swords -- which are actually blunted competition foils -- but they don metal-meshed face shields and Kevlar-lined jerseys. They also grab their teacher, Eric Hood, because he's the only one who really knows what he is doing.

Wanting to give the students a new athletic choice, Hood started the fencing class in September with students as young as 5 and as old as 18. A college fencer and a certified coach through the U.S. Fencing Association, Hood said he got the idea to teach a fencing class after someone asked him for private lessons last year.

"I hadn't thought about teaching," he said.

But when he did, there were plenty of students. Michael Leese, a high school senior who is fencing for the first time, said he was happy to pick up a physical education credit with a sport other than the usuals of football, basketball, soccer, or baseball.

"It's a way different option than what we normally have," he said.

Different is right. Combining the sorts of skills needed for boxing, tennis, cross country running, ballet and chess, foil fencing is a sport of endurance, grace and strategy. Armed with weapons sporting thin, flexible, spring-steel blades, the fencers' objectives are to score "touches" against one another. The only areas on a fencer's body that count as scoring targets are the torso and back. The first competitor to reach five touches in a preliminary match and 15 in an elimination-round match wins.

Slashing away wildly will not get the job done. Built into the rules is a complex ritual of turn taking. A fencer whose touch is blocked with a parry -- a move that requires a fencer to merely touch his opponent's blade before the tip of the foil finds its mark -- loses his turn and must defend himself before going back on offense. Matches can go on for minutes without a touch scored as fencers exchange parries.

The shared school students are not at the point where they want an exchange to go on that long. Dripping with sweat after a long exchange with fencing partner Spencer Burnett, freshman Andrew Gregory was clearly tired after a one-hour class Tuesday. All the feinting, lunging and retreating carried the two boys up and down about 50 feet of sidewalk in the class' workout space behind South Whidbey High School. Keeping his feet moving was the challenge for Gregory.

"The footwork is the toughest to master," he said.

Burnett, who is only 11, had a clear advantage as the two sparred. More than a foot shorter than his opponent, he was able to fight in such close quarters that Gregory was unable make scoring hits. Burnett said fencing is sport in which the playing field is truly level, no matter who you are.

"It doesn't really matter, your size or your strength," Burnett said.

Misty Downer agreed. One of several girls in the class, she has learned to overwhelm her school mates with fast footwork and quick parries.

"That comes easy," she said.

Even parents of students are enthusiastic about having their kids swordfighting. Linda Morgan-Burke said her son Tommy was excited to add fencing into is sporting schedule, which also includes soccer and basketball.

"He absolutely loves it," she said.

Hood said his students are building cardiovascular endurance, coordination, and are doing something they usually only see in movies or plays. He tempered their desire to start sword fighting at the start of the class by forbidding the kids from touching their weapons during the first two weeks of school. During those early days, the students worked on positioning and maintaining proper distances for attacking and defending.

"The key to this sport is body position," he said.

Because the school lacks a competition facility and the electronic vests and weapons needed to score the fast action of fencing, Hood will begin taking his students to competitions in the Seattle area early next year. As in any one-on-one sport, competition is a necessary element.

The school did purchase about $2,000 in practice gear for their students, but could not afford the scoring equipment. Hood said his fencers will have to be "hosted" by another team that has this equipment when they compete.

The tournaments will also give the students a chance to watch advanced fencers compete at foil, and at the other two fencing disciplines -- saber and epee.

The South Whidbey Shared School Cooperative is a parent-partnered, alternative public school. About 100 students are enrolled in the school, which is based in modular buildings behind South Whidbey High School.

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