Physical Chess

Custodian With a dry mop in a hallway

Fencing Uses Athleticism, Intellect To Build Discipline, Reduce Stress

By Tripp Laino | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 01.24.18

Out of Nowhere Fencing’s class doesn’t actually begin until 7 p.m., but by 6:40 p.m. several sword fights are already breaking out. With their offhand tucked behind them to prevent blocking the scoring area on their torso, the students bounce toward one another, springing into action.

Fencers’ swords have grips more closely resembling a pistol than what one might think of as a sword grip, which allows for more quick wrist motions—slashes and flicks at a speed that can be difficult to follow.

The bouts occasionally take a few moments to really get going, but once fencers are close enough to make contact, things heat up quickly. Swords clang, feet shuffle rapidly and suddenly an electronic beep signals contact has been made. Both fighters turn toward a referee— in most cases, a fellow student—who quickly makes a ruling on scoring.

David Copeland, who runs Out of Nowhere Fencing with his wife, Annette, moves around the room, offering tips and pointers, and refereeing bouts. He’s been coaching for 25 years, and says his initial attraction to the sport came from watching lightsaber battles in the Star Wars movies.

While he first studied the sport as a participant, he eventually faced a choice of going forward as a competitive fencer or moving into teaching. He says he chose teaching as a way of helping share the sport with others. “He teaches movement mostly,” Annette Copeland says. “Most people don’t know how to move as a fencer. Once you know how to move, it’s about strategy.”

David says much of the practice of fencing is teaching fencers repeatable skills that become second nature, as it’s not just being able to perform a move, but do it in an instant during a bout. “As a fencer, you’re always dealing with things that come up in split-second scenarios,” he says. “Everything about your form, your function has to be able to react in a split second. There’s really no sport that moves quite like fencing. I’ve had people come in and train fencing and improve their reflex action and overall ability to control muscle movement.”

Fencing has three weapons, all of which Copeland teaches. The majority of students use the foil, which has a target area within the torso, not including the arms, head or legs. It’s about 35 inches long and the lightest of the three weapons. In the middle is the epee, which has a heavier blade of similar length and allows attacks across the entire body. Both of those swords score with the point of the blade, as opposed to the sabre, a modern version of a cavalry sword, which allows cutting as well as thrusting motions. It targets from the hips through the top of the head.

Individual equipment for the sport, including a mask, sword, jacket and scoring lame (pronounced le-MAY) run about $400, according to David, but students in his classes don’t need to purchase equipment to participate; there’s gear for use.

The class has a mix of adults and children, which is part of the appeal of the sport, Annette says. “What’s really cool about it is you have parents fencing with their children, you have husbands and wives, you have siblings and everybody’s fencing together,” she says. “You don’t have to leave the kids at home, you can bring them with you.”

One of those kids is Isaac Jenkins, 10, who has been fencing for about a year after attending a camp at Frederick Community College. Isaac shrugs off any concerns about a fear of swords flying his way—“You’ve got all this padding on”—and quickly dives into theory when asked what he likes about fencing. “You have to make sure that if they’re coming at you, you’re defended and you’re not just standing there,” he says, mimicking moves with his shoulders as he talks. “If they have the attack, you have to parry them to get the counter-attack.”

Ida Namur, who’s been fencing for eight years, had never previously been into sports, but found that she loved fencing after trying it on a whim. She says she appreciates how the game helps her relieve stress. “You don’t need to be an employee or a mom or a wife or whatever,” she says. “All that matters in that moment is you and the opponent trying to score that next touch. It’s 50-50, physical and mental—they call it physical chess, and it really is that. It’s good exercise and a great exercise for the brain. It’s just that moment, where there’s nothing else matters.”

Todd Hensley fenced in college, but dropped off after, picking the sport up again about a year ago. “It’s kind of a complicated sport,” he says. “You can excel even though you’re not at the top of the food chain as far as athletic ability. It’s more of a thinker’s sport. You can do it for a lifetime. I’m 51, but I can compete with the kids and have fun.”

He also says the class can offer a bit of an escape from a rough day. “If I’m not feeling right, or low energy, once I start class, it just goes by rapidly—like five minutes has gone by, but it’s two hours or three hours later,” he says.

Namur jokes that the sport is nerdy, but adds the blend of finesse and athleticism is a major attractor. “It’s not just waving a sword around—it’s very finesse, it’s very athletic, but it’s very nerdy,” she says with a laugh. “It attracts a lot of people who are very cerebral. It’s kind of a fringe sport, but I think if more people were exposed to it, they’d love it.”

She also appreciates the no-nonsense nature of fencing—you can’t fake your abilities. “You have to be strategic, and you have to work really hard physically, and there’s just something about the game that I love,” she says. “There’s no BS-ing your ability out there. You get put in your place sometimes by 15-year-olds. It’s very humbling.”

Frederick Magazine