Your kids do what? Some Answers to Questions Fencing Parents Get Asked by Miranda Cox
Fencing? About four years ago a fellow parent mentioned to me that her son Eli fenced. Never having seen the sport, I pictured Eli "fencing" and said to myself, "Why fencing? Why doesn't he just do a regular sport like soccer or basketball?" Little did I imagine that just a couple of years later I'd be taking my sons Max and Robbie to fence in their first tournament, and that Robbie's scoring a touch against Eli (while losing the bout) would be something our whole family cheered.
Two years have passed since that first tournament. In those two years, I've watched my children develop as fencers and, along the way, I've come up with my own answers to the questions other parents ask about fencing.
Where? One of the first questions I hear about fencing is, "Where do they do that?" Four years ago, hearing about Eli, I wondered the same thing. Now I know that here in Columbus, Ohio, there are at least four fencing programs I can suggest to other parents, offering a choice of location and various class times to suit family schedules. Beyond these year-round programs, there are fencing classes offered by recreation departments, after-school options at various schools, and summer camps. Columbus, I have learned, is a wonderful place for fencing, but its fencing clubs are "hidden jewels" that most parents are unaware of. Similarly, there are fencing clubs all over the United States ready for parents to discover. A good place to start looking is on the United States Fencing Association's website: www.usfa.org. You can click on Find a Club to do just that and browse under Sections and Divisions to find more information on the fencing scene near you.
Why? The next question I hear usually wonders how Max and Robbie got interested in fencing. Fencing families all have different stories to tell, and ours is not unusual. We were looking for a sport to keep then 10-year-old Max active. He'd reached black belt in Tae Kwon Do and was ready for something new. He wasn't particularly interested in team sports or anything involving balls, but he agreed to try fencing. I did some research and found a wonderful instructor. When I took Max to an introductory lesson, his 6-year-old brother, Robbie, came along and gave it a try, and they've both been fencing ever since. Other kids we know came to fencing after seeing demonstrations, because they like swords, because their parents tried it in college, or because they saw it in the movies.
What's more important, though, is why Max and Robbie keep fencing. It's fun, they say. It's exciting. Fencing requires both mental and physical skill. Fencing appeals to both kids who enjoy few sports (like Max) and kids who enjoy many sports (like Robbie). Bouting and tournaments give them a chance to test their skills and measure their steady improvement. While they fence as individuals, young fencers enjoy the camaraderie of rooting for their clubmates at tournaments. Fencing is a great workout and helps develop hand-eye coordination and body control. On a practical level, it's been easy for our family to adjust the amount of time the boys spend fencing as their level of interest and their other commitments have varied.
What about competitions? Fencing offers lots of opportunities for competition. It's been an Olympic sport since the start of the modern Olympics. As luck would have it, Mariel Zagunis won the first US Olympic Gold medal ever in fencing just after my children had started. We (I'd been watching the lessons) had learned enough to be able to follow the action -- and to wish that more of the Olympic fencing were televised. Before you get to the Olympics, though, there are local, regional, and national tournaments, all with competition divided into age groups, starting with age 10 and under. Again, every fencer and his or her coach and family can decide at what level they want to compete, and a fencer's level of commitment can vary over time. While some of their fencing friends have been to the United States Fencing Association (USFA) Summer Nationals--a multi-day tournament with hundreds of fencers--Max and Robbie so far have only competed locally. Without leaving Columbus, they've been able to fence and get to know opponents from other clubs in Columbus and from Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Cleveland.
My children's most exciting fencing opportunities so far have been at the Arnold Fencing Classic, part of the Arnold (Schwarzenegger) Sports Festival held every year in Columbus, with Arnold himself in attendance. Top youth fencers from around the country come to participate in the youth tournament, while the senior competition draws elite fencers. In addition to gaining lots of fencing experience at the Arnold, Max and Robbie have been able to see just how good boys and girls their age can get and what really world-class fencing looks like live and in person. They've also met lots of famous fencers, including members of the 2004 Olympic squad and Peter Westbrook, who was on every US Olympic fencing team for two decades, winning a bronze medal in 1984 before going on to found the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York City, which helps kids succeed in fencing and in life. From my point of view, the opportunity to see fencers at the peak of the sport in intense top-level competition and then to talk to those same fencers off the strip and out of their fencing "whites," where they turn out to be calm, friendly, regular folks, offers lessons and inspiration that can be gained no other way.
Seeing the elite fencers at the Arnold inspired us to seek out other opportunities to see top-level fencing. Here in Columbus, Ohio State football rules the scene, but the OSU fencers are just as good as the football players at what they do, if not better. So it seemed only natural for Robbie to spend part of a weekend afternoon last spring watching the webcast (alas, no national TV broadcasting) of the NCAA men's sabre championship bouts, rooting for the guys from OSU. Since then, we've had a great time checking out the action at a 4-day USFA national tournament here in Columbus as well as watching thrilling bouts from the USFA Nationals and the World Championships on the web. (USFA tournaments are held in various locations over the course of the year. The schedule is on the USFA website. Perhaps one will be near you.)
And equipment? Fencing has already given my children so much--good friends, exciting experiences, new skills and the discipline that comes with learning them, and all the lessons that any kind of competition can teach. We've also acquired a collection of equipment. Four years ago, when I heard about Eli's fencing, I don't think I even knew there was more than one kind of weapon. Now, even though the only time I pick up a weapon myself is to make sure it gets back in the fencing bag, I often find myself explaining to other parents the differences between foil, epee, and sabre. Some coaches and clubs teach only one weapon, while others offer all three. My boys have each gravitated toward the weapon that suits him best, with the unintended consequence of reduced sibling rivalry. (Since they don't fence the same weapon, they never fence against each other.) From a parent's point of view, the good news about the equipment is you don't have to buy it right away (most clubs have equipment your child can borrow while they decide if fencing is a sport for them, while some clubs provide equipment for as long as you fence), and when you do buy it, it costs no more than a bag of baseball gear.
So? I still find it remarkable that just four years ago I knew almost nothing about the sport that has become such an integral part of our family life. Yet I am also surprised that more families don't know much about it. If you've read this far, you know how much fencing has given our family. I hope our experience encourages you to give it a try.