Taking the Blade

En garde -- the regal sport of fencing is thrusting itself onto a broader stage.
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It all started with the Olympics a few years ago.

In Athens in 2004, an American captured the gold in fencing for the first time in almost 100 years.

Fencing in the U.S. had already been growing in popularity, but the sight of Mariel Zagunis winning the gold medal in women's sabre caught the attention of enthusiasts nationwide.

Fencing has traditionally held its spot as an elitist sport.

But it certainly has broadened its appeal in the past 20 years -- although in the U.S., fencing has a long way to go before it can equal basketball or football as a sport of the masses.

Not only does fencing offer an incredible workout, but it truly is a sport to be enoyed by people of all ages.

Today, the

Fencers Club -- the oldest continuously running fencing club in the country, founded by members of New York City high society 123 years ago -- has not only been joined in its ranks by organizations from unexpected places but has expanded and evolved its own membership, says club chairman of the board James Melcher.

Let's Get Physical

"It draws you in like almost nothing else does," explains Melcher. Both he and Ben Price, the coach of the

Baton Rouge Fencing Club, tout the physical benefits of the sport.

Price took up fencing while attending high school in Switzerland. He was on the ski team, and in order to train in the off-season, he and his teammates were given a choice -- they could run up the mountain in ski boots, or they could fence.

Understandably, Price chose fencing, and while he no longer skis, the fencing has remained an integral part of his fitness routine.

Fencing is both aerobic and anaerobic exercise, it strengthens the back and leg muscles, and it increases agility.

"Fencers are among the top four or five conditioned athletes in the world," Melcher points out.

Mental benefits may be harder to measure, but fencing devotees swear by them.

Good fencers have to be able to make strategic decisions in literally thousandths of a second.

"Your mind has to be very actively engaged in what you're doing, while you're sweating bullets," says Melcher, who has been fencing for 47 years.

He claims fencing has helped him maintain not only physical but mental acuity. "I run a hedge fund. I've got to stay sharp," he explains.

Ballestra Ballet

Metaphors abound in fencing.

Price likes to use driving when he talks to his students about the sport: Fencing is like making a hard right in a stick shift.

You've got one foot working the clutch, one on the brake, one hand on the gear shift, the other on the wheel -- everything working together, although nothing completely synchronized.

In fencing, for instance, you could be lunging, kicking one foot back and the other forward, trying to have the tip of your weapon to hit your opponent before your foot hits the floor (a

ballestra

).

Fencing involves a few basic moves, played to infinite variations.

Competitors start every round at

en garde

, a squat with feet wider than shoulder-distance apart, the forward foot pointing straight ahead and the back foot at a right angle.

Fencing is a linear sport, meaning competitors move back and forth in a straight line as they cross blades and advance and retreat.

Movement requires a kind of crablike scooting, kicking forward your front foot, then moving your back to match.

It's the kind of move practiced fencers make look as simple walking on air, as graceful as ballet -- but it can leave novices' quadricep muscles screaming for mercy.

In the past, fencers had to learn footwork for six months or more before they were allowed to pick up a weapon for the first time. (Price recalls spending an entire semester of school just on advance, retreat and lunge drills.)

Fortunately for beginners today, that particular convention has been largely abolished, although the necessity for -- and emphasis on -- footwork remains.

Weapon of Choice

When it does come time for fencers to pick up a weapon, tradition dictates they start learning on a foil.

The foil is the lightest and thinnest of the three blades, and it descends from the training weapon of the 17th century court sword.

It is impossible to talk about fencing without talking about its origins, which recall a class in European history: Although fencing has existed in one form or another since the Egyptians, the sport as it's known today started in Europe in during the 15th and 16th centuries as a way to perfect dueling techniques.

During this time, the Spanish published the first how-to manuals, and swordplay guilds sprang up in Germany.

French and Italian masters perfected and classified techniques at the French court.

The modern day

epee

(pronounced ep-ay) is a 16th century Spanish replacement for the long sword.

While the foil requires precision and control because of its small strike zone (the area of the body on which fencers are allowed to strike and score points), the epee provides more of a "cat-and-mouse game," says Price.

With this weapon, the entire body is a target, and the best epee fencers force their opponents to make an error, thus leaving an opening to score a point.

Finally, there is the sabre, the flashiest of the three. Hungarian cavalrymen introduced it in the late 18th century and perfected their technique with help from the Italian school of fencing.

"Think of a sabre as a machete," Price said. "You don't stick

opponents with a point, you cut them with it."

For a sport that refers to its equipment as weapons, fencing is acually quite safe.

It strengthens the back and knees and boasts a much lower injury rate than sports such as football or basketball.

This is in no small part due to the large amount of safety gear required to participate: Fencers wear a plastic underarm protector (to prevent a stray blade from penetrating the ribs), a form-fitting jacket, a mesh mask with a bib attached (to prevent neck injuries), special pants, gloves and shoes.

In recent years, fencing on the international circuit requires that the entire uniform be made out of Kevlar, the same material used to make bulletproof vests.

All of this sets potential fencers back several hundred dollars, depending on where they get their gear. "It's not a cheap sport," Melcher points out.

The Future of Fencing

Melcher has a theory as to why fencing still hasn't caught on in a big way. It's too hard to televise -- you can't keep up with blade movements.

Ironically, this is the very same quality that makes live fencing matches so fast-paced and exciting, as everything can change in a nanosecond.

However, given the growth spurt this ancient sport has experienced in the past twenty years, be

en garde

-- this too could change.

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Bobbi Parry is a freelance writer originally from Salt Lake City. She now lives in Baton Rouge, La., where she is working toward an M.F.A. at Louisiana State University.