By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Sawyer McElhatton)
On a recent night inside the Charles Houston Recreation Center, a giant partition dropped from the middle of the gymnasium, dividing the space equally into a volleyball court and an area where fencers dueled with swords.
Throughout the night, volleyball players pulled back on the partition, taking a peek at a sport that most people usually only think about during the Olympics. Members of the Olde Town Fencing Club, which has been around for three decades, welcomed the curious stares. They’re used to them.
But they also made sure to invite the inquisitive onlookers to try their hand at fencing. For the past few years, club members have worked hard at introducing the sport to the uninitiated.
Fencing’s rigors, though, are not for everyone. By the fifth week of an eight-week class, just five of the original 20 participants were still at it: Laura Partridge, Matisha Montgomery, Emilee Tison, Jennifer Smits and Estelle Hofschneider. Still, each new fencer said they planned to stick with the sport.
“I read a book where one of the characters got into fencing and thought that sounded interesting,” said Montgomery, whose introduction to the sport was fairly typical according to instructor Joe Hoffman.
“Fencing is the sport you get into by reading too many books,” joked Hoffman, a 30-year fencer who has taught the sport for the past 15 years. “In eight weeks, I can teach them just enough to know what’s going on.
“And after eight weeks, we invite them to come in and pick up a weapon and go whale on people.”
It’s actually a very safe sport, though. The swords — there are three kinds: épée, foil and saber — and protective gear are rigged so that electronic sensors detect and count any scores. The fencer wears armor padding as well.
Those who finish the introductory course are invited to join the fencing club. The result? A group of about a dozen or more dedicated fencers who, on any given night, represent a remarkably broad range of experience. Beginners like Montgomery swordfight within feet of experienced veterans like Jun Liang-Smith.
Two decades ago, Liang-Smith competed in her first Olympics — the 1992 games — as a member of the Chinese team. She returned again in 1996.
A five-time Chinese champion, she later moved to the United Sates, where she helped coach at Penn State. Now, she gives lessons in Alexandria and elsewhere in Northern Virginia.
She’s witnessed the sport’s growth in popularity since arriving in the United States 17 years ago. And she sees community groups — like the Olde Town Fencing Club — as a reason why the country is emerging as a force to be reckoned with internationally.
“In China, it was a little bit different,” Liang-Smith said. “It was a hundred kids in one place and you train for three months, and if you’re good, you stay. If not, you’re out. It’s very different here where everyone can join. But that was 17 years ago, and China is changing.”
Liang-Smith, who comes to the recreation center twice a week, can tell almost by looking if a young child has a hidden talent for the sport. And she’s not shy about it, trying to a recruit a curious 7-year-old boy with a passion for Star Wars lightsaber duels who had come to watch for the night.
“You have to be a little smart, a little strong and you have to like a challenge,” Liang-Smith said as she finished a private lesson with Will McMillin.
Everyone has a different tale for how they got involved in the sport. Mostly, the stories start out with the same sort of curiosity displayed by the volleyball players peering at the fencers from behind the partition.
McMillin got involved in fencing as a child. He rediscovered the sport as a father when his daughter became a standout in high school. He doesn’t compete, but he enjoys practicing each week.
“You basically come and you just pick up, it’s like basketball,” McMillin said.
Nearby, Marcus Balog explained that the appeal of fencing is participating and advancing in the sport for decades, which is impossible in something like football. And, as such, it is no wonder fencing has stood the test of time.
Wayne Bowman, the club president, said fencing goes all the way back to ancient Egyptian times. He joked with a reporter that back in late 19th-century France, being challenged to a duel was considered an occupational hazard for those in the newspaper business.
“They didn’t have libel laws in those days,” he said with a laugh. “And if they did, I don’t think anybody paid much attention to them.”