En Garde! Staying Sharp for Fencing’s Singular Strike
By Gianna Volpe
Why are so many suiting up for saber, exercising with an epee and feeling fine about handing their child a foil?
Nearly as fast as a speeding bullet and won with a single touch, fencing bouts have been at every Summer Olympic Games since the first in 1864. And while the sport’s earliest embodiments can be traced back to ancient Egypt, modern fencing is modeled after a potentially deadly dance in which disputing European duelists engaged each other from the early Renaissance period through the 20th century.
The formerly combat-driven discipline developed into a martial art — hallmarked by honor and poise — in the Post-Modern era. And though classically considered an elitist activity, affordable fencing instruction can be found at Southold’s East End Fencing Academy (EEFA), which is bringing out would-be bouters of all ages and backgrounds for these explosive, multi-targeted workouts.
“I could not believe how my hamstrings felt after the first time I fenced,” said 34-year-old Tonito Valderrama, who attended EEFA last winter. “It felt like you ran a mile within a couple minutes of bouting. It felt like I had done a thousand squats.”
A youth soccer coach in Southold and environmental educator at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge, Valderrama said he would recommend fencing to anyone seeking both mental and physical sharpness, pun intended. “I think most adults should try it at least once,” he said. “It’s a dance; you’re literally dancing with somebody with the idea of killing them with one quick strike move.”
During recent interviews, local fencers with ages spanning three decades expressed fascination with the sport’s reliability to reveal itself as being far more than meets the untrained eye.
“I originally wanted to do it because it’s cool. I mean, you get to use a sword,” 11-year-old Ford O’ Neill said with a laugh. “But it’s more about honor and good sportsmanship.”
The Peconic youth, who has trained at EEFA for nearly four years, said because fencing is “super hard when you’re starting out because it’s all about muscle memory” you have to “focus on tackling one move at a time” while working on one’s sword-fighting skills.
“Swashbuckling” is one aspect that attracted Alexa Seuss — the competitive stand up paddling silversmith of Greenport’s Common Ground Adornments — to EEFA, where she’s been honing her hand-eye coordination.
“I’d like to consider myself a coordinated person, but the hand-eye coordination in fencing is just spectacular, especially if you look at professional fencing,” Seuss said. “A lot of people consider it a very difficult sport to watch because everything happens in less than a second, but that’s what makes it fun, what makes it interesting. Once you train your eye, you start to understand the dance that is fencing.”
This dance is one EEFA’s Jennifer Murray has done since she joined the fencing team as a “twerpy 12-year-old” while trying to pursue a tweenage crush. Two years later she found herself training in New York City under Hungarian fencing master Miklos Bartha.
“[Bartha] made me a national champion within a few years of training,” said Murray, who obtained a top-four ranking in the national foil championship by the time she was a senior at Walt Whitman High School in Huntington. “I found myself through this sport, and as a coach I’ve seen it do the same for others. Kids who may or may not have shown much potential — they blossom in their own time if they just keep at it.”
Murray ultimately moved to the East End after selling the Island Fencing Academy following the birth of her son, James, in 2007, and has sabered the local game ever since as the Twin Fork’s sole fencing instructor. Saber is the fastest of fencing’s three forms — foil and epee follow in speed—meaning Murray is only continuing the quicksilver ways she learned under five-time U.S. Olympic fencing coach, Yury Gelman.
“I’m taking [fencing instruction] over from Riverhead east,” Murray said of eyeing spaces in Riverhead and dreaming about Sag Harbor’s south side while instructing at the Southampton Youth Center while further developing the programming at EEFA’s Southold facility in Feather Hill Plaza.
“The adult program only really started blossoming in the last year,” Murray said, “so I want to do walk-ins — make it a thing to do on the East End this summer.”
Maureen Radigan — whose 10-year-old son has mentored under Murray for more than two years — said she’s noticed strengthened social muscles.
“I’ve seen such positive results in my son,” said the owner of The Child’s Garden pre-school in Southold. “He used to be very shy and we live in a business-zoned area, so I have to work harder to get him to socialize with people. This has been another avenue for him to not only be with friends, but to learn about sportsmanship, etiquette and fencing because he plays a lot of hockey, but that’s more just ‘skate ’til you die.’”