- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 27, 2004

It’s a bone-chilling January night, but at the D.C. Fencers’ Club in Silver Spring, Dana Czapanskiyis beaded with sweat. For nearly two hours, the 60-year-old Takoma Park psychotherapist has kept a succession of sparring partners at bay with a fencing sword called an epee.

“Ready? Fence” is the cry in the makeshift gym. Amid the metallic clank of swords and the beeps from electronic scoring machines, Mr. Czapanskiy charges his opponents, trying to score a “touch.” As they come back at him, he parries their attacks.

All this after only 14 lessons in the sport of fencing.

“It’s like chess with knives,” says Mr. Czapanskiy. “There’s an incredible psychological component to the sport, which I really enjoy, and it’s increased my energy level. And I just feel healthier.”

Each week, Mr. Czapanskiy and more than 1,000 other Washington-area residents, from ages 9 to 80, fence at more than a dozen fencing schools and clubs around the region. They are among an estimated 100,000 fencers who train in the United States, recreationally and competitively. Roughly 20 percent of those belong to the United States Fencing Association and participate in tournaments.

Some people fence for fun, others for fitness, and still others enjoy the competition. Area fencers, in fact, compete in national and international events, from the Junior Olympics to the World Cup Championships.

In the United States, however, fencing is still a relatively underappreciated sport, even though American fencers compete in the Olympics. When the average person thinks of fencing, he or she likely conjures up movie images from films like Errol Flynn’s “Robin Hood,” George Lucas’ “Star Wars,” or the more recent “Pirates of the Caribbean” and Tom Cruise’s “The Last Samurai.”

But instead of swinging from chandeliers or jumping from balconies like film stars, competitive fencers perform a very controlled and elaborately fluid dance with swords on a 6-by-40-foot rubber strip. In most bouts, the first fencer who scores 15 points, or touches, wins. And a touch is what it sounds like — a light touch of the opponent. Fencing is not a brutal sport in which one’s life or limb is at stake. In fact, when the best fencers land a touch, their opponents may not even feel it — though it is nevertheless recorded electronically.

Each of the three swords in the sport — foil, epee and saber — have their own rules as to where a fencer may touch his or her opponent. In foil — a thin, flexible and rapier-like four-sided blade — fencers score points by hitting their opponents in both the front and back of the torso with the tip of the blade.

Epee (pronounced ep-PAY) evolved from the dueling sword. Its fluted blade is long and narrow, has no cutting edge and tapers to a blunted point. Epee touches are also scored with only the point of the blade, but the target area is the whole body.

When using the saber, a V-shaped blade akin to the slashing cavalry sword, the fencer aims for a target area that runs from the bend of the waist, front and back, to the top of the head. A touch can also be scored in saber using the side of the blade.

Foil and sabre fencers wear a metallic jacket, called a lame (and pronounced lah-MAY), because the torso is a valid target area in those two styles; the lame allows points to be recorded electronically. In epee, the entire body is a valid target, so a lame is not necessary — but a fencing jacket is worn. Masks are worn in all three fencing styles, but in saber, the fencing mask has a metallic covering because the head is a target area.

Because of the speed of the sport and since touches can be almost imperceptible, the scoring in fencing competitions and even in sparring is recorded electronically by a wire circuit that runs from the sword, up a fencer’s sleeve and through his or her jacket, until the wire connects to a cable that is threaded to an electronic scoring box, which emits a beep and a light indicating a score. When the button at the tip of the sword is depressed on an opponent in foil and epee, then the electronic circuit is completed, recording the point.

Mr. Czapanskiy, wearing a white fencing jacket, white knickers, a fencing glove on his right hand and a fencing mask pushed back on his head, says that one of the benefits of the sport is that it can bring families closer. He started fencing after bringing his 16-year-old son Max — currently rated 11th in the country in his age group — to practice and to competitions for five years.

“I get to spend a tremendous amount of time with him that I, ordinarily as a father, just wouldn’t get to spend with him,” Mr. Czapanskiy says. “It’s made us very close because of that.”

Families who fence together are common sights at clubs and schools in the area. Marguerite Salvatore, who also belongs to the D.C. Fencers’ Club, which numbers 200 students and club members. Mrs. Salvatore found she could no longer resist trying the sport after bringing her three children — ages 18, 16 and 12 — to practices and competitions for three years.

“After watching my children fence, I decided to take a shot at it instead of watching them night after night,” she says.

Mrs. Salvatore’s two older children have competed in national competitions and in the Junior Olympics. Her daughter Christina will be competing in the Junior Olympics in February in Cleveland.

“A lot of the children’s social life centers on fencing,” Mrs. Salvatore says. “The beauty of fencing is that it’s a sport where people from the ages of 6 to 70 compete and practice together. Your 12-year-old can fence someone in their 60s and get tips from them. It’s an inter-generational experience, and that I like.”

It took a year before Mrs. Salvatore felt fully confident in the sport. Now, she fences with young men in their twenties and thirties, one of whom made the U.S national team in 2002.

“It’s all kind of a middle-age fantasy,” says Mrs. Salvatore, a Chevy Chase resident in her 40s. “If you get to fence someone who’s on the U.S. team and you’re just someone’s mother, it’s like winning a ticket to work out with the Yankees or something.”

Peter Souders, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring, knew that he would have the best time of his life when he took up fencing in summer camp four years ago.

“It looked exciting, and the big thing in my neighborhood was sword fighting,” says Peter, who will also compete in the Junior Olympics in February. “A lot of fencing is different than what you see in ‘Lord of the Rings.’ Every once in a while, you’ll see something that looks similar.”

Peter, who belongs the the D.C. Fencers’ Club, fences saber and says it’s a more exciting and faster sword.

“All weapons are hard in their own way, but saber was the one that I liked,” says Peter, who fences four times a week. “I fence with a lot of people and some who are better [in order] to improve. It really helps.”

At the Virginia Academy of Fencing in Springfield, which, with 600 students, bills itself as the largest fencing school in the world, 17-year-old Carolyn Wright has fenced saber for 41/2 years. Last year, she made the U.S. national cadet team (for fencers under 17) and competed in 18 national and international events in Chile, France, Italy, Hungary, Spain and Cuba, among other places.

Like Peter, Carolyn used to pretend to sword-fight with her friends. Then she decided to fence for real.

“It was different from what I expected because it took so much control and there are so many rules,” says Carolyn, whose seventh-place national ranking in the United States last year qualified her for the SeniorWorld Cup competition — “senior” in this case signalling that one is eligible to fence anyone in that top category.

“Fencing was a lot harder than I expected it to be,” she says. “At first, the physical part was difficult, because it requires a lot of moving back and forth. When I got better at that, the mental game was very challenging, because when you’re facing an opponent, you have to get what they’re going to do, as well as what you’re going to do.”

Carolyn, a senior at W.B. Woodland High School in Arlington, wants to fence in college and is hoping to obtain a scholarship. She likes fencing because of its unpredictability.

“You never really master fencing,” says Carolyn, who is enrolled in the master saber class at the academy in Springfield. “You don’t know everything about it, ever. So I like the fact that there’s never really an opportunity to get bored with it and there’s always a place to keep going with your game.”

Michael Kolodner, a 30-year-old Arlington resident, is a member of the master saber class at the Virginia Academy. Mr. Kolodner started fencing saber at Amherst College in Massachusetts, but had little coaching until he came to the Springfield fencing school. In college, he was an actor and frequently played “Dungeons and Dragons” and thus, he says, was drawn to fencing.

“It was a natural fit,” says Mr. Kolodner, who also teaches intermediate saber classes at the Springfield Academy of Fencing. “I liked saber because it has a more swashbuckling aspect and seemed more fun to me.”

Mr. Kolodner won the 2000 men’s overall Virginia state championship in saber. That was especially gratifying because he had not been very athletic in high school and never played a varsity sport. Once he started taking classes at Springfield, he was trained out of bad fencing habits that he had acquired.

He says that at the higher levels, fencing is more about the mental side of the sport. “You have to be able to master both the mental game in terms of understanding the strategy and tactics of the weapon but also, of course, knowing how to pace yourself and stay calm in a tournament,” he says.

Miriam Riedmiller, who has been fencing at Springfield since 1999, fences foil. She became enamored with the sport when she saw an article about it in Sports Illustrated when she was a child. However, she didn’t take up fencing until she was an adult because her father wanted her to play tennis.

“The basic thing about fencing is that it’s very romantic,” says Ms. Riedmiller, an immigration lawyer in the District. “It’s the only sport that I know that is very polite. Before you commence a bout, you have to salute the director, your opponent and the crowd three times.”

Ms. Riedmiller says she does not fence to compete, but for fitness and relaxation. “I think that this is my escape from the whole world,” she says. “When I come here, I can leave my friends outside and I can leave my work outside and can just become someone else.”

At the Chevy Chase Fencing Club, which meets just inside the District line on Connecticut Avenue NW, Peter Russo, 17, has been taking fencing classes for five years. Mr. Russo, who has qualified for the Junior Olympics in February, says that a fencer has to be more than just athletic in the sport.

“You really have to think, and there’s a lot of strategy to it,” he says. “We call the sport ‘physical chess,’ and it’s really aptly named because it’s as much mental as it is physical. It’s a lot about psyching out your opponent, just faking him out, switching strategies and always staying a step ahead of him and trying to figure out what they’re going to do.”

Mr. Russo received his first glimpse of fencing during the Olympics one year before he started the sport. A senior at Montgomery Blair High School, Mr. Russo has tried team sports, like baseball and football, but wasn’t that good at them.

“I decided I wanted to try something off the wall,” he says. “I also want to keep fencing in college but not at the varsity level.”

Medora Brown, 15, has been a member of the Chevy Chase Club for 51/2 years. A sophomore at National Cathedral School, she was looking for an after-school sport.

“My mom had a friend whose son fenced here, and I came to see it and just fell in love with it,” she says as she takes a break on the second floor of the Chevy Chase Community Center.

Medora, who also qualified for the upcoming Junior Olympics, says that fencing is not hard to learn. “It’s hard to get good, though,” she says. “It’s easy to learn the moves, but it’s hard to get better at them.”

She says the most satisfying aspect of the sport is fencing against someone who is better and then finally beating him or her.

“You just see yourself improve over time against yourself and against other people,” she says.

With that Medora pulls on her white fencing jacket, then her fencing glove and fencing mask. With her 3-foot sword in hand, she walks toward the fencing mats, looking for a sparring partner with whom to cross swords, a smile on her face.

Where to find fencing lessons, competition

On guard in the movies against pirates, pillagers and Frenchmen in blouses, fencers in real life face opponents much like themselves — yet the strength, endurance, agility and just plain spunk they bring to the task makes them more than a match for the likes of Errol Flynn. Here’s a profile of some of the fencing clubs and schools mentioned in the article:

• Chevy Chase Community Center, 5601 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202/282-2204, www.fencer.com/dcrec.html or contact Raymond Finkleman at [email protected]

In the District, Raymond Finkleman and his wife Jean coach some 60 club members and up to 80 students in classes. Mr. Finkleman, who became a fencing master after studying at Cornell University in 1976, says the greatest compliment he can receive is when one of his students beats him.

“It’s very safe when you fence,” he says. “You wear a lot of protection. Referees and lots of rules make it safe.”

The Finklemans recently took six of their students to a super-regional tournament in Houston, and three came back with medals. The club currently has the No. 2 youth fencer in men’s epee and the No. 8 women’s fencer , as well as a former Olympiad fencer.

Classes start Tuesday at the Community Center. They cost $80 for District residents and $96 for non-residents. Beginning and intermediate foil classes are offered for those 13 and older; and beginner and intermediate epee classes for children 8 to 12.

A beginning epee tournament will take place at the center on Saturday at 9:30 a.m. Admission is free.

• D.C. Fencers’ Club: 9930 Fraser Ave., Silver Spring. 301/562-1990, www.dcfencing.com.

Head coach Janusz Smolenski runs the program, which includes some 200 students and club members. Due to limited space, beginning classes are sold out until October. The first two classes last 20 weeks, and then students take a continuous class. A beginning hour class costs $140 for an eight-week session.

The club provides equipment to new students for the first year. Club members also participate in national and international competitions.

Mr. Smolenski, who has been teaching 17 years, is a certified fencing master, and his students have won many medals in national and international competitions. He says people are invited to watch classes and sparring sessions for free. Call for information on upcoming in-house tournaments.

Mr. Smolenski, who worked at one of the top fencing clubs in Poland, says the hardest thing to learn in fencing is to pay attention. “If you don’t pay attention, you’ll never be a good fencer,” he says.

• The Virginia Academy of Fencing: 5410 Port Royal Road, Springfield. Open daily. Beginning classes start every 10 weeks. The next classes begin in April. 703/321-4922, www.vafinc.com.

Alex Ryjik has owned and coached the Virginia Academy of Fencing since 1991. Mr. Ryjik, who began fencing in what is now St. Petersburg, Russia, holds a master of sport in fencing from the Soviet Union. He won many championship titles in the Soviet Union, including All Republic Champion, Army Champion and Leningrad Champion. He is also a professor of fencing at American University and George Mason University.

Mr. Ryjik says fencing in the United States may be growing somewhat, but that the most significant change is that the level of competition has improved since Eastern European fencing masters immigrated here in recent years. Mr. Ryjik also says that fencing draws intelligent and individualistic students and notes that many of his school’s students range from lawyers to government officials, and business executives to scientists and gifted students.

He says many of his students become part of the subculture of fencing. “That makes it a pleasure to come to work,” Mr. Ryjik says. “You don’t feel like you’re coming to work. It’s like a big family.”

At the academy, beginning classes run for one hour for eight weeks and cost $70 for a term, plus a $29 equipment rental fee. As at most fencing schools, fencing equipment is rented usually for the first two beginning classes. After that, students usually buy their own equipment. The basic package runs around $199.

In beginning classes, students are taught all three swords. They use the foil primarily and are introduced to saber and epee. Beginning classes are moderately paced, introducing history, hand- and footwork, strategy and rules. By the end of the class, students fence bouts with one another.

Visitors can watch fencing anytime from a seating area at the academy. An in-house tournament is tentatively scheduled for 2 p.m. on Feb. 21 and 22 and Feb. 28 and 29.

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