- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2000

A duel between two opponents begins, and the sound is something like this: clink, clink, clink, clink.

It is a familiar refrain to fencers, who thrust and parry their steel foils and sabers as they attack and defend themselves against their rivals.

Brute force won't win; rather, intellectual agility and quickness of foot determine the victor in this centuries-old sport that at one time was fought to the death. Now, Olympic gold is on the line.

"Fencing is called the physical game of chess," says Alexandre Ryjik, head coach and founder of the Virginia Academy of Fencing in Springfield.

"The fencer develops coordination, quick reactions, agility, balance and grace," he says.

A jolly fellow with a contagious laugh, Mr. Ryjik, 32, founded the Virginia Academy of Fencing in 1991. It teaches a discipline he learned as a child in his native St. Petersburg, Russia, where he says fencing ranks as high as reading and writing do in the United States.

His passion for the sport catapulted him to the top as a teen-ager. At 17, he earned a Master of Sport in fencing, the most prestigious certification in Russia.

Fencing requires not only physical prowess, but mental toughness, Mr. Ryjik says. Most important, it teaches respect, honor and sportsmanship characteristics necessary to excel in any sport and in life, he says.

That's why he offers year-round classes in various competitive levels for students ages 6 and older inside a 6,000-square-foot state-of-the-art fencing facility.

The majority of his students work with foil, the modern version of the court sword with a flexible, rectangular blade that weighs a little over a pound.

Traditionally, Mr. Ryjik says, that's the weapon students use at the start and is the easiest to learn. After completing a beginning class in foil, students can move on to epee or saber, he says.

Students wear wire mesh masks, protective jackets and a glove. All who step to the strip, or the playing area for fencing bouts, follow the rules for each of the three bouts in foil, epee and saber. The point is to land the tip of the sword on specific target areas of your opponent and protect your own target areas.

Because fencing is linked to literature, history and theatrical arts, Mr. Ryjik includes historical and theatrical fencing in the school's fencing repertoire. Shakespeare buffs, for example, and lovers of the Renaissance period prefer rapiers, daggers and quarterstaffs instead of the foils, epees and sabers preferred by modern practitioners.

Enthusiasts can participate in fencing regardless of sex, age or size, which differentiates this sport from others, Mr. Ryjik says.

"I have 55-year-olds in the same class with 11-year-olds. In fencing, so much relies on intelligence, reaction and coordination. The physical part is not as crucial as the mental," he says.

"That's the beauty of fencing. It is easy to learn, but not easy to master," says the coach, who specializes in saber and has a long list of championship titles under his belt. Mr. Ryjik trains students for national, international and Olympic competitions.

The Olympic Games begin a week from tomorrow in Sydney, Australia. Fencing loyalists, such as Mr. Ryjik, will watch on television as American teams both men and women compete in foil, epee and saber events.

"I'm rooting for Cliff Bayer, one of the best foil fencers in the world, from New York," Mr. Ryjik says.

Hollie Noble, 23, a student at the Virginia Academy of Fencing since 1998, plans to cheer for the American women's foil team, which features sisters Iris and Felicia Zimmermann and Ann Marsh. A favorite of Ms. Noble's, Erinn Smart of the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York, will be on hand as an alternate. Mr. Westbrook won the Bronze medal in men's saber in the 1984 Olympics. Ms. Noble, 23, says the story of this part-Japanese, part-black competitor endeared her to the sport of swordsmanship.

Ms. Noble, who lives in Upper Marlboro, Md., took her first fencing class in 1997 while attending the University of Maryland, where she majored in biology and Russian language and literature.

When her class ended, Ms. Noble set out to find a fencing school she found a perfect match with Mr. Ryjik and his academy.

"Once I found out that Alex is Russian, and with my background, I thought it would be a great connection," Ms. Noble says.

Touche.

In July, Ms. Noble competed in the National Championship in Austin, Texas, in foil and saber. She brought home medals in both events. Mr. Ryjik had encouraged her to take up women's saber.

"I decided to give it a try. I didn't know if I could physically do it. Saber takes a lot of power and agility. A saber bout can be completed in two minutes as opposed to a foil bout, which can take four minutes," Ms. Noble says.

"It's like no guts, no glory in saber. You have to be willing to take the risk," she says.

Ms. Noble has set her sights on the 2004 Olympics in Greece, where she hopes to compete in women's saber, a first for the Olympic Games. Women currently compete in foil and epee events only, Ms. Noble says.

"Alex and I are practicing right now for the next Olympic Games. Alex knows the sport, and he's a very giving person. His expertise will get me ready to go. He pushes you. Although you've got to be a fighter, you have to preserve at this level," she says.

To find out about fencing classes, call 703/921-9060 or go to the Virginia Academy of Fencing's Web site, www.VAFinc.com.

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