Sunday, August 04, 2002

Dont fence her in

By Shannon Russell,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A bystander might describe a summer adventurer as a disciplined purveyor of truth and a beacon of journalistic integrity. To which I'd heartily say “You're crazy!” and sprint to the nearest closet, where I'd hide for the next four days.

        The truth is, adventuring has allowed me to approach journalism from a relaxed angle while giving me license to explore non-traditional avenues. In other words, I get to lounge around in my pajamas all day long, drumming up important discussion topics like “What neat things can I make with tinfoil?” and “101 Science Projects Involving a Microwave, a Potato and a Gallon of Syrup.”

        Sometimes I even talk about sports. Today, for example, I'd like to explore something that's been nagging me for a good decade: The Disappearance of Fencing as a Means of Combat.

    You're dreaming of screaming fans, sold out games and sudden glory. Thinking of fencing?

    Think again.

    Many fencing enthusiasts contend that the sport's appeal comes from personal satisfaction or creativity, rather than public appeal or recognition.

    Chelsey Howell, 14, has been a foil fencer for more than three years. Like many athletes, she has a ritual: she pops Tic-Tacs, or as she calls them, “Power Pellets” into her mouth before she faces a competitor. She enters tournaments as often as possible. A while back she wanted to be an Olympian; now she'll settle for a college scholarship.

    She said the best part about her sport is that it's different.

    “It's nice to be unique,” Howell said. “A lot of people ask questions about it.”

    Tony Borzotta, 16, used to be on a swim team but decided to try saber fencing after several of his friends recommended it. He practices for two hours, three nights a week.

    “I want to do this for a personal need. I want to be good at this,” Borzotta said. “It's fun and the hours are good, and a couple of my friends do it, too.”

    Duane Orlemann, 53, has been an avid fencer for 27 years and is experienced in foil, saber, epee and theatrical fencing. One of his specialties is stage combat, or choreography of fight scenes for plays, operas and ballets. He's helped with productions from “Romeo & Juliet” to Playhouse in the Park's “Dark Paradise,” and it's his job to make sure battle scenes are clean and effective.

    Karl Rufener, 28, shares Orlemann's interests. He lugs everything from a medieval sword and shield to a rapier to practice. When he's not play-acting, he spends his time competitively fencing.

    But the audiences he's accustomed to are theatergoers — not sports fans.

    “The goal of stage combat is different (from competition),” Rufener said. “When you're fencing on the strip, it's all about deception. On stage, it's all about communication.”

        It's no secret that oodles of swashbucklers are — to this very day — highly regarded for piercing their foes' digestive tracts in the name of loot, honor or chivalry. Egyptians started fencing in 1200 B.C., later inspiring other key individuals in the annals of history, such as pirates, Errol Flynn, Zorro, the Three Musketeers and Darth Vader.

        Nowadays you just don't see enough street fights involving foils, epees or sabers. Why? It's still a mystery, but I suspect it has much to do with modern wonders known as a.) squirt guns and b.) noogies.

        I, for one, am still holding out for a fencing revival, which is why, for Summer Adventure No.9, I enrolled in a beginner's foil class at the Salle du Lion Fencing Center of Cincinnati, on Creek Road in Sharonville. Nichole McGuire of Lebanon and seasoned adventurer Amy Russell of Mason joined me.

        “Fencing is really good exercise,” said school director Lloyd Howell, who kindly gave us a lesson Tuesday evening. “And you can go at your own pace.”

        I sincerely hoped he meant remedial pace, which is about the only pace I go. But before I could ask, Lloyd issued us our “whites,” or thick, long-sleeved jackets with high necks. We had to situate the jacket's special strap — a short length of material that connects the front of a jacket to the back — between our legs and fasten the front Velcro swatches. Not to brag, but within minutes we were transformed into the poster children for Straitjackets Quarterly.

        Then it got worse. We removed the jackets while Lloyd thoughtfully plucked three interestingly shaped items from a nearby wall and distributed them. They were clear. They were plastic. They were gigantic bustiers.

        No words can explain the looks of horror Amy, Nichole and I exchanged as we were encouraged to fasten these chest protectors over our clothes. We agreed that if our choices were a.) wear the chest protectors or b.) sustain life-threatening blows to our intestines, we clearly wanted to go with b.). However, all fencers must wear protectors for safety because in foil fencing, the target area is one's torso or back.

        Lloyd gave us right-handed leather gloves to shield our fencing hands, and we were awarded masks based on the circumference of our heads. The masks had a metal grating with padding on the sides and top.

        Last, we received 34-inch foils, or swords.

        We looked like beekeepers with attitudes. It was time to fence.

        Once we entered the Salle du Lion fencing room, we promptly discovered that — despite tall tales and movie lore — fencing is one of the safest sports around. Real fencers wear electronic padding under their jackets and are affixed to black pulleys while fighting upon a narrow mat called a “strip.” When a person takes a hit or is touched by a foil, a flashing light indicates a point has been won. Preliminary pool play is to five points and a typical bout, or fight, is to 15 points.

        While I was thrilled at the prospect of leaving my innards intact, I was slightly surprised that fencing was so carefully orchestrated. Some of the elements we learned, like advancing, retreating and lunging, were almost graceful. Competitors even salute each other before fighting.

        But I vowed no mercy when I faced Nichole for the opening bout. “FENCE!” Lloyd commanded, and we did.

        I erratically swung my foil to and fro, warding off Nichole's advances with the skill and determination of a blind hornet. It was slightly difficult to see her with the giant bee hat on, but I was able to discern her figure and land a hit to her abdomen.

Enquirer sports reporter Shannon Russell takes one to the belly.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
        We reset and Nichole bounced back, nailing me in the side. I seized the next set to retaliate, boldly advancing like the legendary She-Ra, Princess of Power, and forcing her retreat. Our foils locked like a pair of angry unicorns until I pulled ahead. I kept aiming for her left side, which conveniently matched up with my right-handed foil.

        She kept in stride until my fifth and bout-winning hit. Hurrah! No one was going to foil ME!

        Well, except for Amy, who defeated me in an act of sheer coincidence before losing to Nichole.

        “What you learned today usually takes about four weeks to learn normally,” Lloyd said. “It takes about that long to be respectable without getting yourself hurt.”

        We didn't get hurt, and there was no way we looked respectable. But we sure were tired as we peeled off those jackets.

        “It's harder than it looks,” Nichole said. “You have to have good coordination — it's a challenge to defend yourself. I think I have a lot of room to grow as a fencer.”

        Amy, an avid runner, said she felt out of breath during the 15-minute bouts.

        “It was fun, though,” she said. “It did feel like the movies. I kept wanting to say "Ha!' and "En garde!'”

        My theories on the Disappearance of Fencing as a Means of Combat are more clear now, mostly because fencing is an amazingly challenging and engaging sport. I encourage anyone to try it. Let me know how it goes.

        I'll be in my pajamas attending to my tinfoil.


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