- The Washington Times - Monday, October 14, 2002

Diane Ferguson of Bethesda knows that fencing requires patience. After all, the sport asks participants under attack not to counter-attack right away. Although they can defend themselves, they must wait until their opponent's strike is completed before going on the offensive.
Even a seasoned fencer like Ms. Ferguson, though, opted against the counsel of fencing's wisest practitioners. They say a student must master the needed footwork skills before ever touching a weapon.
Luckily, the District and surrounding neighborhoods offer a number of opportunities to learn fencing through beginner courses.
"Some fencing masters don't let you pick up a foil for a year," says Ms. Ferguson, 35, who began fencing 16 years ago. She waited two months before picking up a foil and, looking back, she became a better fencer for it.
Discipline looms large when learning a sport that guarantees that players get hit with the business end of a blade. Neophyte fencers must blend delicate footwork with unerring lunges and parries to score touches, or points, on their opponent's frame, which is protected by a thick, flexible jacket. In practice, fencers place a rubber tip on the blunted points of the foil.
They also must conquer their inner fear of being repeatedly struck by a long, pointed object.
"It's now OK to hit somebody," she says of the sport's raison d'etre. "Once you do it, it feels perfectly normal."
Fencing dates to at least 1190 B.C.; relief carvings found in an Egyptian temple represent the first evidence of the sport.
Today, fencers use foils, epees and sabers to score touches on their opponents. The sport develops hand-eye coordination, poise and balance.
The average foil, the main weapon in fencing, extends about 35 inches and weighs less than a pound. A fencer scores a point when the foil's end strikes the opponent's torso.
An epee (pronounced "EPP-pay") is thicker and more rigid than a foil. The entire body, not just the torso, is considered a target when using an epee.
The saber weighs about as much as a foil, but a point can be scored with the point of the blade or its side.
Brute strength rarely proves helpful, although, as in boxing, a reach advantage can help turn the tide of a match.
Fencing was once considered reserved for the upper classes, but that is no longer the case, says Ramon Martinez, who owns a fencing school in New York and is a member of the New Jersey-based Association for Historical Fencing.
The modern, sport version of fencing didn't evolve until the early 1900s, he says. Before then, fencing was considered both an art form and a way to settle disputes, through duels.
"In terms of sport fencing, it's very approachable. You can find a fencing school or club in virtually any part of the country," he says.
Fencing is a suitable sport for men and women with only slight modifications to the scoring system. Men's matches require five touches for a win, while women's matches demand the winner make four.
Beginners can pick up a basic foil, fencing jacket, glove and mask for less than $150, says Joe Hoffman, an instructor with the Alexandria Parks and Recreation Department.
His eight-week classes, which supply the equipment for no charge, teach the basic footwork and attack methods to whet students' appetite for the sport. Alexandria residents pay $55 for the lesson blocks.
Mr. Hoffman learned the sport through a similar class 18 years ago, but he also made sure to seek out stiff competition to better himself.
"The way I learned is getting beat, then saying, 'Hey, what did you do?'" he says. "The mental game comes into it when you're fencing someone better than you are."
"Fencing is the sport you get into after reading too many books," Mr. Hoffman says.
It is also a sport teeming with contradictions.
"You have to relax, then move as fast as you can," says Mr. Hoffman, a member of the Olde Town Fencing Gang, an informal group of about 36 local fencers, some of whom compete nationally. "You have to think in terms of 'I'm retreating to prepare my attack.'"
The Falls Church resident says fencing boils down to proper footwork.
"The weapon is just there to score touches. You're fencing with your feet," he says.
Once the footwork lessons are absorbed, he passes out foils to his students.
Then, they forget everything you taught them about their feet, he says with a laugh.
Mr. Hoffman teaches beginners how to fence. Those seeking a higher level of training, he says, should seek a certified fencing instructor. The U.S. Fencing Coaches Association has certified instructors at varying skill levels, all the way up to Fencing Master.
Rafael Raval, 29, from Arlington, says the most important time for an inexperienced fencer is the first year of training.
"In that first year, you pick up those bad habits," he says.
For instance, an inexperienced fencer might lunge forward for an attack without fully extending his or her arm. By keeping that arm rigid and true, it "establishes the right of way," Mr. Raval says. By fencing rules, the right of way means that an opponent cannot strike until after a defense is attempted.
Mr. Raval says his skills have grown during the past three years through his time with the Olde Town Fencing Gang.
Working within a group, he says, allows for valuable feedback.
If a club member outduels you, "they can tell you what you did wrong," Mr. Raval says.
The lessons also teach some of the sport's formalities, such as saluting both your opponent and the referee.
Alex Ryjik, head coach of the Virginia Academy of Fencing in Annandale says the biggest misconception students bring to class is that they don't expect to work up a sweat.
"They're absolutely stunned how much they sweat and how much physical work there is," Mr. Ryjik says.
His academy teaches a variety of fencing courses, from standard eight-week foil lessons to historical programs touching upon combat with quarterstaffs, rapiers and other weapons. A standard eight-week beginning foil class costs $70, with a $29 equipment rental fee.
His club features three separate groups of beginners, broken down by age groups. About half of his new students are children.
He likens fencing to tennis, in that participants don't necessarily have to compete to enjoy the sport's benefits.
"They just enjoy the game of tennis. It's the same thing we're doing with fencing," he says.
Beginners often get confused with the various messages they must absorb.
"It's the relationship between the mind and the body," he says. "You have to think about your footwork and handwork and the strategy at the same time. It becomes overwhelming and you forget about one thing or another."
Mr. Ryjik has sobering news for new students looking to cross train to prepare for fencing.
"The best training for fencing is fencing," he says. "It's really nothing that comes close to the type of movement that you do in fencing, maybe tennis or boxing, physically speaking."
Most academy students begin with the foil.
"Of all the weapons," he says, "the foil originally was created as a training weapon. It's a little bit softer it's easier to handle. It's lighter."
Ms. Ferguson cautions beginners to expect a few aches and pains after their initial lessons.
"Your knees will hurt until you get used to your forward motion," says Ms. Ferguson, who performs aerobics and yoga to stay in top shape. The latter exercise, she says, also hones her mental concentration.
"You need as much stamina as possible," she says.
Alexandria resident Cole Schroeder recalls clutching his foil so hard his hands ached after the first time he picked up a fencing weapon, a year ago.
"You do learn to calm down," says Mr. Schroeder, who is 28. "Once I learned to control my adrenaline, I enjoyed it."
When fencers remove their masks, the rivulets of sweat beading off their brows testify to the sport's grueling pace. Mr. Schroeder wouldn't deny its athletic demands, but he sees a peaceful side to the sport.
"Even though you're moving back and forth, it's very Zen-like," he says. "Once you learn how to do it you stop thinking and just act."
The sport can also be humbling, he says.
"A beginner will still be able to touch you no matter how good you get," he says. "Some of the old masters fenced till the day they died, and they were still learning."
Those interested in fencing courses also can contact the D.C. Fencers' Club (www.dcfencing.com) or Chevy Chase instructor Raymond Finkleman's fencing Web site (www.fencer.com) for a list of other Washington area groups.


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