Legwork, lunging let fencers slash back at the calories


"This past January, I was desperately seeking some physical activity," says Dr. Joanne Watson, a 37-year-old family medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center.

Her husband, Bruce, also a doctor, had been dispatched to Kentucky with his Army Reserve unit. Suddenly, Watson was sole caregiver for their three young children and in need of an occasional sanity-saving energy burn.

She'd also recently dropped 53 pounds dieting and wanted to keep the weight off.

"I hate the treadmill," says Watson. "I hate the gym. And I hate walking."

She spotted an ad in a community newspaper for the Chesapeake Fencing Club and decided to check it out. The club leases space inside a Knights of Columbus hall in North Baltimore and has about 60 saber-rattling active members.

Even seasoned fencers, however, admit that their sport has an image problem. Maybe it's the high-button, snow-white uniforms that remind you of cavalrymen dipped in powdered sugar. Maybe it's the French-laced terminology. Or the minimalist action.

Most people may think the toughest part of the sport is squeezing into those tight pants.

Au contraire.

"There's a lot of legwork. We call it physical chess," says Watson. "Getting yourself into position, the lunging. It's aerobic and it's anaerobic."

Ray Gordon, a 43-year-old professional fencing instructor who serves as club president, says you work the quad muscles and hamstrings especially hard. "Fencing is very high intensity," he adds, "so it's more like sprinting than jogging."

Longtime member Dan Collins, senior director of media relations at Mercy Medical Center, says fencing also develops upper body strength and balance.

"You burn calories at a higher rate than a professional football player," says Collins, who doesn't mean to imply that you'd be better off having a fencer at your side during a barroom brawl.

Fencing likely will never be a staple of ESPN coverage. Roughly 500,000 Americans fence recreationally, according to Mike May, spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. But in 2000 the association dropped fencing from its annual Super Study of Sports Participation.

"It's one of those sports that's sort of a niche activity," says May, putting fencing in the company of wind surfing and squash.

The good news is that membership in the tournament-oriented U.S. Fencing Association stands at 25,000, up some 50 percent in four years.

"We are seeing rapid growth," says Cindy Bent Findlay, the association's media relations officer. She attributes that spike to the proliferation of coaches and the U.S. women's team having won gold and bronze medals in saber fencing at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Very few Chesapeake Fencing Club members dream of someday striking Olympic gold. They practice two nights a week for the fun of it. Joanne Watson did drills for more than a month before proceeding to an actual bout, whereupon, she recalls, a 12-year-old fencer "kicked my butt."

There are three weapons of choice: foil, epee and saber. The swords vary slightly in weight and grip, but, most critically, in the size of the target area on an opponent's body. With the epee, everything is fair game; with the foil, just the torso. A saber scores anywhere above the waist, including the head and arms.

A point is awarded every time a sword tip touches a hot spot on the body, which is wired to record electronic hits. The standard match lasts 9 minutes - or until the first fencer registers 15 touches.

Watching Gordon and Collins spar is like watching a mating ritual in the animal kingdom. There's lots of fancy footwork and parrying punctuated by split seconds of frenzied, meaningful action.

They stutter-step up and back on a 40-foot-long, 6-foot-wide strip marked by colored tape on the wood floor - their truncated battlefield.

"I'm still in the think-too-much stage," says Watson, pointing out instinctive moves the two men employ that are invisible to the untrained eye.

There's little of the swashbuckling flash and clash that characterize Hollywood sword fights. "In movies, what they're doing is trying not to hit each other," says club member Jay Glenn, who is also looking on. "Here you want to make your blade movements as small as possible."

Collins, dripping sweat, takes a seat on a folding chair after he and Gordon call it quits. He says he grew up chubby, "the last-kid-picked-for-dodgeball type of thing."

In 1986, he intended to sign up for a course on automobile maintenance at the Towson YMCA and instead wound up taking a fencing course Gordon was teaching.

Back then, Collins was overweight and plagued by high blood pressure. Twenty years later, he's more than 40 pounds lighter and part of "this underground society of fencers."

He owes that transformation to now-best friend Ray Gordon, who has stripped off his workout clothes and walks by wearing a favorite Descartes-inspired T-shirt.

It reads: "I fence, therefore I am."


Go for it

Chesapeake Fencing Club will hold its annual "Fence-A-Thon" tonight at Ridgely Middle School in Lutherville beginning at 9 p.m. with nonstop bouts until 9 a.m. tomorrow. The event is a fundraiser for the club and House of Mercy children's charity. $25 for participating fencers, free for spectators. For details, call 410-532-7445.

For more information on the sport of fencing, check these sources:

U.S. Fencing Association: usfencing.org

Chesapeake Fencing Club: chesapeakefencing.com. The site includes links to fencing clubs in Towson, Lutherville/Timonium, Parkville and Owings Mills.

A workout book written by two Olympic fencing trainers: Get a Gold Medal Butt (Harper Perennial, 1996).

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