Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 22
A thinking person's sportWith the founding of a Los Olivos club, fencing draws interest among Santa Ynez Valley youth
BY JEREMY THOMAS
Some call it aristocratic. Some call it nerdy. But whatever reference point you have for fencing, be aware: It’s gradually carving its niche here in the United States.
Before attending Cal Poly, Santa Maria fencer Walter Goodwater had never been exposed to the sport. As a young soccer enthusiast, he quickly found the balance of physical and mental exercise he was looking for on the mat.
“As much as I enjoyed the team aspect of soccer, fencing is just you and your opponent,” he said. “Trying to outthink your opponent as well as be faster than your opponent was intoxicating when I started it. No other sport had anything like it.”
After joining the Mustangs’ fencing team and later coaching at the school, Goodwater moved to Santa Maria and started the Presidio North Fencing Club in Los Olivos in 2011; it’s the first such club in Northern Santa Barbara County.
The club maintains about 15 members, mostly elementary school children from the Santa Ynez Valley and a few parents. He starts the younger ones off with foam pool noodles, teaching them how to stab and how to move their feet.
“Fencing is all about footwork, as opposed to what they do with the blade,” he explained. “We get them to move and be aware of distance; that’s probably the most important part of fencing.”
In competition, fencing is broken down into three events, or “weapons.” Each has its own nuances, but the goal is the same: Hit your opponents with your blade on a valid target area before they do the same to you.
In foil, fencers can only score by touching the tip of the blade on their opponent’s torso. With sabre, players can also score by cutting or slashing anywhere from the hips up to the head. Scoring in foil and sabre is governed by “right of way” rules—the fencer who attacks first has priority to score, while the opponent responds with a defensive move. If both fencers prod each other, the referee decides who went first, and awards a point to the attacker. The first to five points wins the match.
Finally, there’s épée—the French word for sword—in which whoever hits their opponent first anywhere on the body wins the point, regardless of the initial attacker.
A coach of foil and still a competitive fencer himself, Goodwater describes the sport as “physical chess.” While it’s the sword fighting aspect that lures children, he explained, it’s the mental game that keeps them interested.
“It does draw the type of kid who is the thinker or the reader; the kid in the chess club who wants to do a sport, too,” Goodwater explained. “It’s enticing for them to think, ‘This is the sport for me.’ This isn’t going to be the most popular one, but this is the one that fits the intellectual and introspective mindset.”
An avid chess player, 11-year-old Theo Brown certainly fits the mold. He’s fenced for almost three years, falling in love with the sport because of the strategy involved and the challenge of getting his body to do what his brain wants.
“Fencing is like chess in the way that you are one of the pieces,” Theo said. “If you’re just going solo, you are an entire team of pieces, and every little aspect about you is one piece. When you put all those pieces together and you have the willpower to do it, you can pit those pieces against your opponent, and whoever has the better army wins.”
Like many kids, Theo grew up enthralled with knights and Star Wars, particularly the light saber battles. He would use plastic bottles to simulate swordfights with his older brother and father, and after they started taking fencing lessons, he wanted to try.
At the time, Theo’s mother Pamela was surprised there was no place for children to fence in the Valley. She contacted other parents and the Presidio club in Santa Barbara about forming a local club, to which Goodwater responded.
With her family’s connection to fencing, Pamela was even inspired to try it herself. She calls it an “amazing sport,” as fun as it is demanding.
“It’s a great sport for kids who want to develop a focused strategy for solving problems; it’s just that you do it on your feet,” she said. “It doesn’t require any special skills, you just have to have an open mind and a willingness to go for it.”
Intent on working his way up through the ranks, her son Theo practices fencing every day, doing pushups and other exercises to increase his leg strength. Equally important, he said, are his mental gymnastics.
“I think the real workout is courage, because to go out there with all these people watching and get stabbed takes a little guts,” he explained. “Some tournaments I get major butterflies, because it’s a little scary to have people with swords coming at you for a few hours straight.”
In the Central Coast Fencing Foundation, clubs from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara meet about five times a year for tournaments, facing off in three age divisions.
Theo won a silver medal in his first tournament and said he would love to go to the Olympics someday, but his immediate goal is to medal in the Y12 division. In the younger ranks, his strategy was to strike quickly before his opponents had time to think. The older he gets, he said, the more he’s had to develop his fencing smarts.
“I would just rush them and then do an indirect feint, where I pretend to hit them and then go around to the other side,” he said. “In Y12 that’s everybody’s style. Now my style is to just play it by ear, and when I see a break in their defenses, I’ll attack.”
As his students gain experience, Goodwater moves them on to tactics and anticipating moves, encouraging them to be faster as well as smarter.
He’s seeing the sport catch on among youth. Once dominated by Europeans, he said, fencing has expanded throughout the United States and Asian countries in the last 15 years. At the London Games, the U.S. team boasted one of the top female sabre fencers in the world in Mariel Zagunis, the Americans’ flag bearer during the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony. Though Zagunis failed to medal, the United States did win a bronze in the women’s épée.
With the Olympic hype coming to an end, Goodwater said, fencing’s renaissance in the United States is just beginning.
“It’s growing,” he said. “For such a weird esoteric sport that feels kind of out of place in our modern world, for some reason people have started to get really excited about it, which is great.”
Staff Writer Jeremy Thomas always gets the point. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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