Erroll Flynn, eat your heart out

Amateur fencers display their best at Cherry Blossom competition in College Park

April 16, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,SUN REPORTER

It's the height of politeness: Salute before you skewer. That was a guiding philosophy for the 370 fencers from the Baltimore and Washington area who gathered at the University of Maryland, College Park this past weekend for the annual Cherry Blossom Open.

The event is one of the largest on the East Coast for amateurs, who have the chance to duel with some of the top fencers in the sport and get a taste for what a national event feels like without paying hefty entrance fees.

Competitive fencers use the annual gathering as a warm-up for a national competition each spring that will be held this year in Tucson, Ariz., where their performance determines their national rank. Organizers believe the regional competition is at least 50 years old.

Anne-Marie Walters, 53, hoped she could make it to the competition next week in Arizona.

Saturday was a good day for Walters, who lives in Mitchellville and is a physical education teacher at a Montessori school in Prince George's County. She placed third among women in foil, the lightest of the three types of swords in fencing with a thin rectangular blade.

Her third-place ranking came after bouts against college students less than half her age - an accomplishment that makes her a legend in this part of the country, said Shoshona Agus-Kleinman, assistant coach of the University of Maryland Fencing Club.

The Trinidad native was nimble against her opponents, some of whom outweighed her by 100 pounds or towered over her petite frame by several inches.

Fencers use three types of swords - the foil, epee and saber - to earn points based on which part of the opponent's body they touch with the rubber tip. Different swords allow fencers to earn points by touching different parts of the body.

On the 6-foot-by-44-foot strip fencers use as their boundary, Walters ducked and wove as well as any of her younger counterparts yesterday, and barked a guttural "Ha!" when she thought she had made a particularly good point. She looked calm before the bout. But throughout the match, she later confessed, she was thinking: "Get him! Get him! Get him!"

"This game is all about etiquette, discipline, self-control," Walters said. "It's an expensive hobby. But once you start, you just get hooked. I started a fencing club for my students. I want to just share my passion."

Swords average about $70, face masks cost as much as $480 and padding and other protective wear can cost another $200.

Walters has been fencing since she was in college in the mid-1970s in Brooklyn, N.Y. She took a 13-year hiatus from the sport until 2004, while she was raising children. When she rejoined the sport three years ago, she emerged as the second-ranked fencer nationally and fifth in the world in veteran foil for women over 50.

Success for Walters yesterday proved more elusive. She lost three of the five bouts she fought in the first round, and bowed out after her second matchup in the second round.

Still, she has her sights on the nationals.

"I knew I wouldn't get too far in this tournament; it was just practice, but I'm going to get into those nationals and try again," she said.

Fencing has experienced a surge of interest nationally. The United States Fencing Association says its membership has grown by about 1,000 a year for the past four years.

"There's something cool about being able to beat the crap out of somebody and then be able to shake hands with them at the end of the day," said Patrick Elder, president of the University of Maryland Fencing Club.

In Maryland, the number of fencers registered with the USFA and eligible to compete in tournaments has swelled to 229, with many more unregistered fencers.

"A lot of people get into it because they don't like team sports as much, and a lot of people think swords are cool. It's like this individualistic kind of battle where you feel like you're kind of fighting for your life," Elder said.

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