- Associated Press - Saturday, March 11, 2017

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - The sound of steel on steel rings out.

Swords clang, feet shuffle. A swing is followed by a block -clang! Then another quick series of moves.

Then someone yelps.

A hit.

About a dozen people have gathered to do battle in the Benson Community Center gym.

Organized as Omaha Kunst des Fechtens - a German phrase meaning “art of fencing” - the group fights with real swords and studies historical manuals to have some fun, get exercise and prepare for upcoming tournaments.

They aren’t playing a game, they’re not in costumes and they’re not re-enacting some old battle. Historical European martial art, or HEMA, is an organized sport - just one that’s based on medieval manuscripts, the Omaha World-Herald (http://bit.ly/2lUHM1L ) reported.

And when they practice, they hit each other. Hard.

“It’s a contact sport,” Ian Gurney said as he watched a duel.

It’s also incredibly fun.

Michaelangelo Reina, Omaha KDF’s founder and teacher, has been practicing for more than five years.

“I just couldn’t stop,” said Reina, 33.

After learning about a school in Los Angeles, his home at the time, Reina immediately signed up for classes. When he moved to Washington, D.C., he joined a club there.

Then soon after he moved to Omaha, he started his own club, Omaha KDF.

“I got in running,” he said.

For more than a year, Reina has relentlessly pushed the club, which now includes 15 regular members, and about 10 attend each of the club’s twice-weekly practices. Along with the Musketeer Fencing Club, he also pushed to get dueling saber, rapier and longsword events into the Cornhusker State Games, making Nebraska the first state to include HEMA in its state games.

Club members feel like they’ve not only picked up a fun hobby but also joined a community. They get together each week, and they’re excited to prepare for upcoming tournaments across the country.

To get a sense of the sport, I picked up a sword at a recent practice.

Unlike the plastic and foam toys from my childhood, these things were big. And heavy.

The swords - some forged steel, some hard plastic - are technically called feders, and they’re dulled so the fighting doesn’t turn deadly.

Most practitioners fight with a longsword that is 50 inches from point to pommel. Swords with steel blades weigh between 3 and 5 pounds.

We began with warmups, swinging our swords over our heads and in front of our bodies.

Then the dozen attendees broke into groups. One group practiced wrestling, another HEMA discipline, while the others donned padded armor and practiced hitting each other.

The padding is necessary.

Unlike your childhood experiments with swordplay, the object is not to have a friendly and injury-free good time by tapping your blades together a few times. Your objective is to hit your opponent.

The first thing we were taught was to aim our sword at your enemy’s face. All the time.

You’ll hit your opponent. And you’ll also get hit. Hard.

Don Doumakes, 61, joked that one of his fingernails was finally growing back. Wayne Brekke, 49, said he couldn’t count how many times he got bruised after precise hits where two pieces of padding met. And Christa Pier, 30, showed off her thumb, which was bruised the week before but healing.

The sport attracts people from all walks of life. Reina runs the club when he’s not working as an animator for Booz Allen Hamilton. Doumakes is a software developer. Brekke owns his own business. Rick Long is a stay-at-home dad.

Like the sport itself, the practices are multilayered. It’s intellectual, and practitioners try out techniques they’ve gleaned from reading manuals written hundreds of years ago by German and Italian masters.

The manuscripts follow either a German or Italian tradition, and they’re written in the original language and illuminated with drawings of fighters. Many translated versions can be found for free online.

To get good at fighting, you have to read these ancient masters, study the medieval drawings and apply those skills in the real world.

In other words: Pick up a sword and fight.

The entry cost is low for beginners, but it quickly escalates when you buy swords and padding. Dues to the club are $20 per month, which lets you participate in the sessions at the Benson Community Center.

The exercise element is a big one for many. As it turns out, swinging around a forged carbon steel sword is a real workout.

Some like the historical aspect. Others like how it reminds them of “Lord of the Rings” or Dungeons & Dragons. And everyone there, well, really enjoys whacking at each other with swords.

“The other thing is swords,” Reina said with a laugh. “It’s just really cool.”

At the practice, Reina showed me and another beginner some basic moves. We started with some defensive blocks. After getting those down, we blocked several of his attacks in a row.

Then we learned a basic cut, and Reina had to reiterate that you’re always trying to hit your opponent. Once we had that down, Reina demonstrated a counter: When your opponent blocks your cut, you can counter by swinging your sword one way and stabbing him in the chest.

Muscle memory told me to hold the sword like a baseball bat, and Reina helped me correct that. He also helped with my footwork so I could move around more quickly.

After about an hour of warm-ups and training, that was about it for us newbies.

After we broke into groups, Reina let us all practice whatever we wanted. A few continued to practice with longswords. A member of the Omaha Musketeer Fencing Club jumped in to practice singlestick fencing. Two others practiced with daggers.

Reina walked the floor and offered encouragement and demonstration of some different techniques.

“You gotta step when you strike. Good job. There you go,” he said.

When someone gets hit, they pause and ask how their opponent landed a blow. They’re trying to get better.

Later, I donned a large fencing helmet and practiced a little with Long, 44.

Long is dedicated, and was happy to help the new guy.

He let me take a lot of swings and try out a few things, and he didn’t get upset when I hit him.

Along with Reina and Brekke, he’ll be competing at Longpoint, the premier HEMA fencing event in the United States, held in Baltimore. This year it’s set to draw nearly 300 participants.

Long has also begun to invest in extra gear, including an expensive practice sword from Black Horse Blades.

“That’s my baby,” he said, admiring it as other fighters passed it around.

Swords cost more than $100, padded jackets more than $200 and helmets $60 and up. Plus you’ll need gloves and leg protectors, unless you enjoy broken fingers and bruised shins.

Equipment was hard to come by when Reina began. He built a lot of his own padding at first.

Equipment is widely available now from online sellers such as Purpleheart Armory simply because the sport is more popular, Reina said, pointing to a viral New York Times piece and the HEMA documentary, “Back to the Source,” where Reina actually appears in the background.

“It keeps growing exponentially,” he said.

___

Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com

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