- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2006

Underneath suits of armor and pictures of Hollywood swordsmen, 12-year-old Sasha Ryjik’s foil thrusts ahead, biting at his opponent’s blade with a metallic clang. A deflection and a dodge later, Sasha’s opponent lunges ahead, his blade ready for the kill.

The moment, however, quickly goes from climactic to comical: Sasha’s opponent — his 8-year-old brother, Misha — falls over in midlunge, his prepubescent legs crumpling beneath him.

“If I had younger siblings, it’d be more fun,” Misha says ruefully. “I could beat up on them, instead of just listening to my older brother.”

“Pirates of the Caribbean” it isn’t, but such is the life of many young fencers at the Virginia Academy of Fencing, open seven days a week in Springfield.

“We have the world’s largest fencing school,” says Sasha and Misha’s father and head coach, fencing master Alexandre Ryjik. “We have over 1,000 students, including beginners. In the fencing world, that’s unheard of.”

Training at the school — whose fencers range from age 10 to over 60 — earned Sasha and newcomer A.C. Eldeib championship titles, as well as 11 other medals among the club’s members.

“From one year — from nothing — [A.C.] created a national championship,” says Mr. Ryjik.

Still, he adds, there is no pressure to compete: “That’s where we have the most people: recreational fencers. They come for their exercise, for the socializing aspect … it’s education. It’s open for everyone.”

Those beginning fencing training at the academy go through six weekly one-hour beginner courses before moving on to the preparatory, intermediate and competitive classes. They can train under coaches such as Mr. Ryjik or former Olympiad-trainer Alexei Sintchinov, a 30-year veteran who has worked in Russia, Egypt, Belarus and Tunisia.

A.C. says, “It’s a really nice environment, and I like the coaches, too.”

Those with a taste for the theatric also can take “historical swordsmanship” and “stage combat” classes at the academy.

“They are re-enacting how people really fenced maybe 100 years ago,” Mr. Ryjik says. “Most of the other clubs focus on competitive fencing. We have everything.”

Meanwhile, aspiring fencers in the District have 30-year fencing veteran Raymond Finkleman, at the Chevy Chase Community Center. Mr. Finkleman, one of the first American-trained fencing masters, says, “A lot of people have this Errol Flynn idea of fencing, but competitive fencing isn’t really like that. … [In] competitive fencing you try to hit as many times as possible. … You can’t do that with theatrical fighting. Stab him too much and he can’t deliver his lines.”

Mr. Finkleman’s attentive coaching serves him well when training classes of 8- to 12-year-olds, as well as classes of adults ages 13 and older. “You can join the club as a beginner,” Mr. Finkleman says. “You don’t have to be the top fencer, you just have to be committed.”

While learning a new sport may sound arduous to some, Mr. Finkleman stresses that beginners should just take one class a week. Anything beyond that and perhaps some stretches and calisthenics could lead to developing bad habits, he says.

Mr. Finkleman’s zeal has earned him praise. Jack Stonesifer, a rising high school freshman from Rockville, says, “Ray’s really been great. … Ray can do anything — he’s awesome.”

Jack adds, “A lot of the kids stay after the meetings to continue fencing.”

Michael Burack, a 63-year-old lawyer from Bethesda, says he enjoys the social aspect of the sport. “I end up fencing people whose ages range from being older than me to fencing teenagers. … There’s a lot of camaraderie here.”

Mr. Burack, who started fencing at age 58, says fencing is a wonderful sport for people his age. “It’s not impact, very aerobic: The only downside is that you get bruises [along your arm]. It’s not a big deal: it’s a mark of distinction.”

Maryland residents looking to learn how to fence recreationally can visit the Chesapeake Fencing Club in Baltimore, coached by 26-year veteran Raymond Gordon.

“We try to keep things kind of friendly here,” Mr. Gordon says. The club, which mainly trains recreational fencers and is in the same location as a more competitive club, indeed exudes warmth: 13-year-old Baltimore resident Andrew Barry says, “We work together — I don’t know what it’s like for all the other clubs, but I like it here.”

Preteen beginners at the club take an eight-week beginners’ course, which is 60 to 70 minutes a week and encompasses footwork, bladework and eventually “bouting” matches between fencers.

“By the end of that program, it’s pretty automatic,” Mr. Gordon says. He says his students learn how to teach after their first three months, and then mentor other newcomers.

“With the older folks,” he adds, “because they tend to have a little bit more sense, we let them begin bouting after a month.”

Dan Collins of Baltimore, who began fencing at age 23, agrees that it is never too late to start: “Ray said to me a long time ago that if you pick up a foil and you like it, you’ll have a hard time putting it down.”

He recalls the liberation of the fencer’s mask: “You can be who you want to be. You see people in social situations [who are] very mild-mannered, but when they go out on the strip, they’re an entirely different person.”

Indeed, Mr. Collins is so enamored by Mr. Gordon’s teaching, that he not only manages the club’s public relations pro bono, but also is training with Mr. Gordon to pursue the first world record for continuous fencing.

“It’s like training for a 200-mile marathon,” Mr. Gordon says, explaining they would fence for 24 hours straight.

Mr. Collins says, “There are a lot of clubs that just focus on getting championships — and that’s fine. [But] we’re not trying to make national champions here. We want to teach kids the basics of this sport, so it’s fun, and they don’t have the pressure … this is a club that celebrates the fun part of fencing.”

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