- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2019

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Roni Edwards trains with her friends every Friday evening. Growing up, she was a competitive dancer and played soccer and basketball, but now Ms. Edwards has an admittedly nerdier athletic passion — one that requires her to wield a glowing blue lightsaber.

It’s much more than a Comic-Con escapade: “Star Wars” enthusiasts are serious about the world of lightsaber combat, a sport growing in the U.S. and around the world.

Sounds silly? These saberists understand how it looks to outsiders, but they take it quite seriously.

“Having guidelines is nice because you’re actually learning something and you apply yourself,” Ms. Edwards said. “It’s not just, ‘Here, wave it around and have fun.’ It’s still fun, but you’re like, ‘I’m learning something.’ You use your brain a little bit.”

To lightsaber fighters, the question isn’t whether the activity is a sport, but how to classify it: Fencing? Martial art? Swordplay? The field’s nascent stages have given way to different factions organizing their own sets of rules.

In February, France’s fencing federation officially recognized lightsaber as the fourth fencing discipline, joining the more widely known epee, foil and saber.

Meanwhile, leagues including The Saber Legion and LudoSport have enticed fans of varied ages and skill levels to step onto a mat — often in full costume — and try to best their opponents in a friendly fight to the finish.

“We’re all just a bunch of nerds and geeks. It’s very much a safe place for us to hang out [doing] something that’s very common for all of us,” John Schares said during a recent practice with the LudoSport Tidewater chapter in Virginia Beach. “At the end of the day, who doesn’t want to hold a lightsaber like we all dreamed as a kid?”

Long ago in a galaxy not far away …

A passion as niche as lightsaber combat became so well organized in the U.S. thanks to places where “Star Wars” fans were already assembled. Terry Birnbaum and Josh Linden, co-founders of The Saber Legion (TSL), met through a “Star Wars” club five years ago in their home state of Minnesota.

Mr. Birnbaum said 99.9% of TSL’s participants are big “Star Wars” fans and usually range in age from 20 to 40. Many of them modify their gear and wear costumes to go for a Luke Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi look. But it was important for Mr. Birnbaum’s vision to combine the sci-fi lore with real-life sword-fighting rules.

“Just think of TSL as like the mixed martial arts of saber combat,” he said. “We have a lot of different fighters from a lot of different actual sword backgrounds that take their sort of martial arts skills and apply them to our organization in full-contact saber fighting.”

Mr. Birnbaum’s enterprise grew quickly and gained media exposure from the likes of ABC’s “Good Morning America.” ESPN featured an hour of TSL programming for its tongue-in-cheek “The Ocho” venture last year.

With about 50 chapters and more than 8,000 members worldwide, TSL holds the claim of largest lightsaber league. Meanwhile, LudoSport — founded in Italy in 2006 — is the oldest.

The majority of LudoSport academies are in Europe, but seven exist in the U.S. The Tidewater academy claims to be the largest. Many of Tidewater’s founding members were introduced to lightsaber dueling on the same day, in the same way: at a booth at the local Comic-Con in 2017.

“I was pretty much ready to sign up on the spot when I saw how serious it was taken: like it was an actual, sincere combat sport,” Xada Swain said.

Mr. Swain, now an instructor, had a background in parkour and dance before picking up his saber. Others from LudoSport and TSL also were experienced in fencing or a martial art, making it easier to assimilate as well.

So do classical fencers look down at the lightsaber leagues? Not Greg Kaidanov, the owner and head coach of Nova Fencing Club in Falls Church, Virginia. Calling himself a fencing purist and a “Star Wars” fan, he said he sees enormous potential in lightsabers as a way to attract more children and teenagers to fencing.

“From what I’ve seen from the movies, and also a friend of mine who did some of the choreography on the last couple of ‘Star Wars’ movies, the idea of lightsaber combat was based on a little bit of fencing and a little bit of kendo,” Mr. Kaidanov said. “I definitely can see a place for it in fencing. A little bit of a hybrid between both Eastern and Western martial arts.”

Mr. Kaidanov wants to see whether the United States will follow in France’s footsteps. The U.S. Fencing Association did not respond to requests for comment.

Do or do not; there is no try

So you want to be a Jedi? To start off, open your wallet. Participants don’t shop for their lightsabers at the local toy store.

TSL and LudoSport have specific sponsor companies that specialize in manufacturing lightsabers. The blade is made of a flexible polycarbonate that also is used in police batons. The hilt is aluminum. The light emanates from an LED inside the blade that bounces colored light off a mirror, and the iconic saber sound is triggered from inside the handle by a motion sensor.

The final cost of a saber, Mr. Birnbaum said, can run between $200 and $2,000 — and that’s before adding protective gloves, goggles and other gear.

Jason Newing, who leads TSL’s Maryland chapter, said he has spent thousands on the sport, but he added that it doesn’t require that level of investment.

“You can do this on a budget,” Mr. Newing said. “We always recommend: Don’t buy anything. If you want to come check out what we’re all about, we have sabers to share. We have gear to share. So you can see if it’s for you first, before you make any kind of investment.”

The two main leagues might look similar and require similar sabers, but their styles and rules separate them from one another.

In LudoSport, points are given anytime a player delivers what is considered a “lethal hit” — a saber blade touching the torso, thigh or upper arm. Forcing your opponent out of bounds is the only other way to score. Competitions also employ judges who assess how smooth or flashy an athlete is and adjudicate a “best style” award.

“There’s that emphasis on trying to re-create the prettiness of what we see in the movies with what makes a good combat technique — and also is not going to get someone hurt,” said Erin Franklin, director of the Tidewater academy.

TSL has no interest in style points. Not steeped in the acrobatic moves of “Star Wars” lore, TSL is a full-contact activity and requires more protective gear than LudoSport.

LudoSport’s designers “take those moves from the movies, which aren’t really applicable in real-life combat,” TSL’s Mr. Birnbaum said. “If you were to do a spin and then hit me, by the time you did that spin I’m going to stab you in the face with my lightsaber, and then the fight’s going to be over.”

The force is strong in this sport

Among the many arguments that support calling lightsaber combat a sport: It has its own referees. It has its own common injuries, mainly broken fingers, even with the use of protective gloves. And as in any sport, championship tournaments are a yearly draw.

Americans in LudoSport will make a pilgrimage to the Finger Lakes in New York for their national championship on Labor Day weekend. The fourth annual Saber Legion tournament is taking place at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas through Sunday.

Mr. Newing, who has two TSL world championships to his name in the Exotic Saber division, went to Las Vegas with most of the Maryland charter. That includes his wife, Jessica Newing, who is training to be a referee.

“We have a motto at TSL: ‘United through sabers,’” Mr. Newing said. “That extends not only to just us as members of The Saber Legion, but other saber groups. There’s a flavor of saber group for everybody that’s out there.”

The sport faces unique challenges, too. TSL has an intellectual property attorney on retainer to avoid trademark lawsuits.

After Disney acquired Lucasfilm and sued a New York group with the words “Jedi” and “lightsaber” in its name in 2016, these leagues have to say “LED sabers” in all official promotions.

Mr. Schares said LudoSport Tidewater’s biggest struggle is that outsiders sometimes don’t believe what they are hearing. Once, when the group tried to rent gym space for practice, the person on the other end of the line thought it was a prank call.

Those moments never slow down these budding athletes. In an era of esports and growing lethargy, lightsaber combat gives self-professed nerds and geeks a more physically active alternative to PlayStations, XBoxes and card games.

In fact, several participants say they got into shape by training every day. Mr. Birnbaum said he lost 55 pounds.

Beyond that, the saberists are drawn in by the community. Mr. Swain said the sport is competitive, but “not competitive in a negative sense.”

“You can outright talk to [opponents], like, ‘Hey, look, I want to beat you someday. Help me do that. What do you know that I don’t?’ ” he said.

“The enjoyment factor of meeting these friends that I have from all over the country, and sometimes from different countries, because of this is unrivaled for anything else I’ve done in my life,” Mr. Newing said.

You might say the force is with them.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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