Lure of the sword

At the Slayton Fencing Club, competitors practice a sport that some call physical chess


A duel begins, swords clang and, although no blood will be drawn, some say it is still a fight for honor at the Slayton Fencing Club, which meets three nights a week at Slayton House in Columbia.

"It's the romance of the sword," said Harper's Choice village resident Jeff Biggs, 40, who returned to fencing five years ago after a 15-year hiatus and helps teach beginning and intermediate classes. "Everyone who tries [fencing] on some level wishes he were Captain Hook or Peter Pan."

The sport, a workout for the body and mind, is sometimes referred to as physical chess, said club co-director Kerry Swick, who has been fencing for 36 years and once represented the United States in a World Cup competition.

"You get used to thinking on the fly," said Kings Contrivance village resident Donna Lyle, 48, who returned to fencing two years ago after a short stint in college. "You see a move, you know how to counter it."

Others describe fencing as a great stress reliever.

"It really gets your energy out," said 16-year-old Caitlin McDowell. "You get to stab people," she added with a grin.

The United States Fencing Association has 28,000 members, and more than 100,000 people in the United States are thought to fence for recreation, Swick said.

Fencing is not about running up and down staircases and fending off five attackers at once. Instead, the sport is about agility, speed and trying to strike the opponent with the sword's rubber tip.

"It's a thinking person's sport," said Swick. "You must outwit your opponent."

The bouts take place on strips that are 2 meters wide and 16 meters long. Contenders choose from epee, saber and foil, each with its set of rules.

When dueling with the epee, the fencer who touches first anywhere on the body gets the "touch," as points are called, Swick said.

The saber is a thrusting and cutting weapon, and the target is from the waist up. No points are scored if the blade touches anywhere else on the body.

With the foil, which is most commonly used for training, the target is the front and back of the torso, and only the attacker has the right of way to score a point.

Fencing aficionados say the sport results in few injuries.

"We adhere to a strict safety code," said the club's founder, Jamie Met, who began fencing 15 years ago at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. "While there has been bruising I've never seen any injuries at this club."

One of the reasons could be that sportsmanship is very important in fencing, Swick said.

At the tournament level, "before and after every match each participant must salute the audience, the referee and his opponent." Swick said. "If he doesn't, that will be a penalty, and it could result in being kicked out of the tournament."

No specific physical attribute makes someone a better fencer, Swick said. Participants don't have to be the tallest or the strongest to win. Quick thinking and strategy are essential.

"If you're 5-foot-2 fencing someone who is 6 feet, you learn strategies to deal with the situation," Swick said. "A taller fencer relies on distance. You need to sucker him in. Make it look like he'll be able to hit you. Then you can get close in."

That was part of the appeal for Harper's Choice resident Nathan Destler, 15.

"It's a more intellectual sport than physical," said Nathan, who has been fencing for three years. "I'm not terribly strong. I prefer to outthink my opponent than beating them with brute force."

Swick also noted that the sport is something people can do for a lifetime, regardless of age or fitness level.

That appealed to Clarksville resident Robert Suggs, whose son David, 10, is in the intermediate class.

"People are in it for the sport, not because it's the next big trend," Robert Suggs said. "He won't need 22 guys [on a team] to pursue it as an adult."

Because of the sport's adaptability to a wide age and physical range, families can participate together.

River Hill resident Jason Wetstone, 16, has been fencing for three years. He inspired his father, Jeffrey Wetstone, 52, who had fenced briefly in college, to take up the sport again last year.

"My dad always talked about his class in college," said Jason, who has competed in local tournaments. "He always told the story where at the end of his class a fencer came in and was beating everyone. [Then] it was my dad's turn. He decided he couldn't win with skill so he was going to try to outsmart him. He won 3 to 2."

The story led Jason to try the sport, which spurred his father's renewed interest.

"As Jason got better, I wanted to talk with him about it, but I realized I didn't know the language," said Jeffrey Wetstone. "I looked around and saw other dads doing it, so I decided to take classes as well."

Jeffrey Wetstone took the beginner class last year and hopes to start competing this fall.

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