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Published July 22 2012

Fencing has growing appeal in region, nation

Fargo - Imagine playing chess but at 100 miles per hour. That is the description most used to describe the intensity of fencing.

“It is a challenging sport,” said Clay Willoughby, president of the North Dakota Fencing Association. “It is easy to learn, but takes a lifetime to master. You are not out there whacking each other. There is strategy involved.”

Having to blend combat and strategy defines the sport. That combination has been enough to generate a following in the metro area and throughout the state.

Fargo-Moorhead has two fencing clubs. There are other clubs spread across the state.

“The United States, the thing here, is back in the day it was a minority sport where it was only universities in a league,” said Enrique Alvarez, who is an instructor with the F-M Fencing Club. “Now it is getting a boom. Whenever we have the Olympics, the U.S. is getting two or three gold medals.”

Alvarez is from Spain, the birthplace of fencing. He said fencing is known for being the only Olympic sport with its origin coming from Spain.

In fact, fencing is one of only four sports to be included since the inception of the modern Olympiad since 1896, according to USA Fencing.

“The U.S. is doing better than Spain,” Alvarez said. “In Spain, no one qualified for the Olympics. The U.S. could have five gold medals this year.”

What is fencing?

Nicholas Miller long thought that fencing was a sport for the rich and the noble. Miller now knows fencing is a sport for everyone.

“Fencing is a sport of honor,” said Miller, a 15-year-old from Fargo. “If you don’t salute your opponent before a match, you will be disqualified from a tournament. It is taken very seriously.”

There are three types of fencing:

E Foil, which has a restricted target area to the front and back of the torso.

E Epee, which is when the whole body is a target.

E Sabre, where everything above the waist except hands and the back of the head are targets.

Fencing weapons all have tips at the end, not blades.

“First of all, we encourage a lot of safety,” Alvarez said. “At the end of the day, it is fencing.”

Fencers are required to wear protective clothing that covers the head, torso and legs.

Willoughby said he’s heard from people about how dangerous the sport has looked.

“Yes, there are injuries, but normal injuries like sprains and muscle pulls you’d get in any sport,” he said. “There have been six deaths in fencing since the 1930s, and that has all been at the high levels, and they’ve been related to broken blades.”

Miller said he tried other sports such as basketball, but found fencing more rewarding. He respects the sport because of the amount of work that goes into it.

Fencing requires proper footwork, knowing how to use a specific blade and knowing when to attack or defend.

“When people find out I fence they look at me,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, you’re a fencer? That’s pretty nice.’”

Miller isn’t the only convert that has grown to enjoy the sport.

Some of the sport’s most famous fans included former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a former high school champion, according to USA Fencing.

Even celebrities such as Madonna, Will Smith, Tom Cruise and David Beckham are fencers.

“When we started, we started with three people,” Alvarez said. “Now we are around 25 students from the different high schools, and we add around five or six people every semester. We don’t lose anyone, and that’s the important thing.”

Fencing’s area impact

Willoughby, who is from Houston, said he picked up fencing while attending the University of North Dakota. He said UND’s fencing club was already established when he came to campus.

“I have been trying to do a little research,” he said. “I think the fencing club is one of the oldest clubs on campus. My coach has been on the club since the late 1980s and early 90s.”

Willoughby, who works for UND’s IT department, said the club’s numbers fluctuate but has started to regain its following. Because UND offers a fencing class, there are more first-time fencers.

UND’s fencing club has played a major role in why the sport has grown throughout the state.

Robert Bianco, who co-founded the FM Fencing Club with Alvarez, attended UND and picked up the sport at the school.

Minnesota State Moorhead also has a fencing club. At least three of MSUM’s coaches, including Bianco, are coaches with the F-M Fencing Club.

Even the Fargo Park District offers fencing classes.

“We have six or eight sessions a year where they are filled up every year we’ve offered it,” said Clay Whittlesey, who is the district’s director of recreation. “It has taken off, and it has been a good program for us.”

Whittlesey, who has been with the city for 22 years, said the district has an open book policy to where if someone suggests an idea for a program, they make the effort to listen.

He said Jason Schoneck, a Fargo resident, brought up the idea of having a fencing class. Whittlesey admitted he thought the idea was crazy but it turned out to be a winner.

“It has been a success story,” he said. “And Jason, who runs the program, works at Microsoft, and they gave us a grant to where Microsoft helps fund the program.”

There is also a fencing club in Bismarck, and Minot is trying to get one started. The NDFA holds four tournaments, with its most recent being held July 21 in Carrington.

In Minnesota, St. Paul is home to some of the nation’s top fencing clubs.

“One of the coaches in St. Paul is the coach of the U.S. women’s fencing team which will be at the Olympics,” Alvarez said. “It gives our kids a chance to see good competition and learn from it.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan S. Clark at (701) 241-5548.

Clark’s Force blog can be found at slightlychilled.areavoices.com