Navy fencers may be foiled by budget cuts Enthusiasts act to party thrust

June 02, 1993|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Staff Writer

It's called the conversation of the blade, that cold harangue of steel just after two fencers raise their weapons to their faces, point them directly at each other in salute, then lunge forward to the command "en garde!"

Since the days when wooden ships and iron men ruled the seas -- and even a century and a half ago when fencing was taught at the U.S. Naval Academy as an art of war -- the idea has not changed: Whether with the flexible foil, the unyielding epee or the flashing, edged sabre, you win by taking advantage of bad movements by your opponent.

Ed Donofrio learned that principle so well during his years as a midshipman at the Naval Academy that he made All-American on Navy's fencing team, later won the individual and team U.S. Fencing Championships, and competed in the 1976 Olympics. Enshrined in the Naval Academy's Athletic Hall of Fame, he is a former coach of the fencing team and has just seen his son Greg complete his plebe year at Annapolis, the leading foil fencer on the varsity squad.

But suddenly Mr. Donofrio finds himself in a most unusual conversation of the blade, seeking an advantage against an opponent he never expected to face -- the Naval Academy itself.

Two weeks ago, the academy announced the cancellation of the men's and women's varsity fencing program. To save $50,000, it ended a program that dates almost to the academy's founding in 1845.

"Fencing is a tremendous sport," protests Mr. Donofrio, a vicpresident with Federal Armored Express in Dundalk, who is trying to rally Navy fencing alumni and national fencing groups to pressure Navy to change its mind. "Fencing teaches discipline, athleticism, endurance," he says. "It's got everything. It's

See FENCING, 5C, Col. 1 FENCING, from 1C

produced more than 60 All-Americans and a dozen Olympians at Navy. In the scope of things, $50,000 is pennies."

His lunge, though, is parried by Jack Lengyl, Navy's athletic director, who says the decision to drop fencing -- along with men's volleyball, women's gymnastics and pistol -- came after an 18-month study of the effects of a congressional mandate to shrink the midshipman brigade from 4,500 to about 4,000 by 1994.

ed No competition from Army

The study, he said, surveyed 600 midshipmen about their interests, preferences and participation in sports; it weighed concerns such as media coverage and revenue potential -- even the all-important West Point factor. While the Air Force Academy has a fencing team and was beaten this year by Navy, the really dreaded rival, Army, cut its program years ago. That means no "Beat Army" fervor to vouch for the sport.

"We struggled with it, believe me," says Mr. Lengyl. But in the end, "fencing ended up toward the bottom of the list. All things being equal, we'd love to continue, but given the economic environment of downsizing, it's unrealistic to say we would continue these sports."

Unreal is pretty much the way Janusz Smolenski feels about the decision.

"I think it is a big mistake," says the 30-year-old Polish fencing master, who was introduced to the Naval Academy by Mr. Donofrio and who won approval from the secretary of the Navy to coach this year's fencing team.

"This was the most successful program in the history of the Naval Academy," he says, noting that Navy fencers have had only two losing seasons in 146 years. "Fencing goes beyond beating Army. It teaches you to react, to think, to behave correctly in very difficult life situations. The best fencers are very successful in life."

"It's a sport you can do forever," adds Jack Smith, president of the D.C. Fencers Club in Washington, where Mr. Smolenski still tutors. He estimates there are about 100,000 fencers in the United states, taking part through clubs, high school teams, junior olympics programs, national championships and senior national championships.

In addition, men's and women's fencing is taught at almost 50 NCAA schools, including the Johns Hop

kins University.

"Fencing is likened to playing chess while running a hundred-yard --," says Mr. Smith. "But the whole time you are putting your body to the limit, you are putting your mind to the limit, too. That's the joy of it. Younger fencers have the reflexes, but older fencers often have the edge on the thinking end of it."

In fact, the club's oldest fencer is 83-year-old former Navy Capt. Dick Steere, a 1931 graduate of the Naval Academy and a winner of the bronze medal in fencing in the 1932 Olympics. While he hasn't competed in 18 months because of vision problems, Captain Steere still picks up his foil every now and then.

A military sport

"The training value of it is the quickness of hand and eye coordination, the competitive will to win, and an atmosphere made to order for military folks," he says from his home in $H Landover. "It doesn't require much space. I've had many a good fencing

workout on board ship. It's been so typically a military and equally a naval sport that it just seems a tragedy to see it go."

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