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The Magic Touch

photographed by Debra Scherer

The Magic Touch

by Aziza Hassan

At first glance, the historic Lackawanna Warehouse building, located on an off block in downtown Jersey City, might elicit thoughts of “Why doesn’t somebody just knock this old, decrepit warehouse building down already and build some condos instead?” The Lackawanna Warehouse, which was once a thriving center for warehousing and distribution by the railroad companies in the early 1900’s, is indeed old. One could argue it could even use a little work. However, if you were to take a step inside this treasured New Jersey landmark, you’d be amazed by what is taking place inside.

On the first level, you can find, and probably smell and hear, Carlo’s Bakery, a century old local business famous for its feel-good television program Cake Boss. But if you decide to tear yourself away from the extravagant cakes and get on the elevator to the fourth floor, you’ll be even more shocked to learn that above the bakery takes place another ancient, measured, and calculated art form – fencing.  

Steve Kaplan teaching at Cobra Fencing Club photographed by Debra Scherer

On any given weekday, fencers, coaches and parents all gather together at the Cobra Fencing Club. The club was established in 2008 by Olympian fencer, world champion, and Queens-native Steve Kaplan. Walk into Cobra at the right moment and you may just catch a future Olympian or a future Olympian’s parent all suited up in their fencing gear and standing in their best “En Garde” position ready to bout it out! “I was very lucky to have had an excellent coach, the late Csaba Elthes,” Kaplan recalled, “he developed an amazing teaching method which I learned and I really wanted to bring this method to young fencers. I enjoy watching them develop as fencers in the middle of their growth years—from age 7 to 15. It’s worked out great so far.”

Fencing is a unique combat sport that includes three weapons or disciplines (Foil, Epee and Sabre) which are practiced by both women and men. The sport is one of only four that have been featured at every one of the modern Olympic Games with Women's Sabre being added just nineteen years ago at the Summer Games in Sydney, Australia. In all three fencing disciplines, the main objective is to hit your opponent in the designated target area. Of course, like any other sport once the rules and regulations come into play, it can get more complex. However, the main idea is simple. Get the touch!

When watching the youth fencers at Cobra practice from a spectator’s view, they look like a bunch of swashbuckling pirates dueling to the death just having a good ole time. But, there is actually immense conditioning and training that goes into each fencing bout and these young fencers are working extra hard now, so that they can be ranked amongst the best when they get older.

Drill Camp photographed by Debra Scherer

Every Saturday morning at Cobra, youth fencers ranging from ages five to nine years old get to the club bright and early and go through a series of exercises that some of the kids refer to as “Drill Camp.” They perform several fencing and footwork exercises given by Cobra’s own accredited coaches to help them prepare for their upcoming fencing competitions. It may seem like a lot for such young athletes, but with the recent explosion of youth competitive fencing taking place in America, this is just a normal day.

The number of youth fencers getting involved in the sport is rising at an enormous rate in the U.S. Many of these young fencers are coming from all different backgrounds, nationalities and walks of life. They are entering the sport with hopes to train and one day make a U.S. National Team or even a U.S. Olympic team. And when it comes to achieving these goals, these kids are getting straight to the point! They’re training 4-6 days a week while going to school full-time. In addition to this, they’re traveling to the local and national competitions on the weekends just to boost their national ranking.

In the same way basketball, football, and notably crew, are all good avenues to take to getting into top universities, fencers are also eligible for college sports scholarships. In fact, many of the schools known more for D-1 football teams or dominating March Madness brackets like Columbia University, Penn State, Notre Dame, and Temple University all also have competitive NCAA-regulated championship-winning fencing teams. And parents of fencers know this. Which is why, not coincidentally, recent scandals like the ones at USC and Harvard took place, with a parent purchasing the home of longtime Harvard fencing coach Peter Brand for over $400,000 more than the house's listed value to secure both of his sons’ spots on the fencing team. This story made national news and subsequently put quite a few highly-regarded fencers and coaches under investigation.

2008 Senegalese Olympic Champion Abdoulaye Thiam photographed by Debra Scherer

But the parents who are getting their children involved in fencing are very aware of the uniqueness of the sport. Many are former fencers themselves who once competed. Other parents want to get an early start on their child's college career in order to avoid having to get them into the university in a not so honest manner. The amount of work and dedication put into getting these youth fencers to competitions, and then getting them into these esteemed schools on a fencing scholarship is something that is attained through serious work for the athletes, just like all sports.

So, a good question would be why are so many kids leaning towards fencing all of a sudden? Although America is now a powerhouse in the sport, it was once highly disregarded on the world fencing arena. This may be a hard idea to conceive due to the rich history of fencing in the states. But with the recent success of several notable Olympic fencers including Peter Westbrook, Mariel Zagunis, Miles Chamley-Watson, Race Imboden, Daryl Homer, Nzingha Prescod and others, the United States is now a force to be reckoned with in international competition. There was a time when the only place you saw fencing was when you turned on your television and stumbled across an old Alexandre Dumas adapted film – nothing started a sword fight quite like watching the Three Musketeers go at it. However, with today’s modern technology the young kids are going online and going straight to YouTube to see these Olympians duke it out on the big stage and then they have dreams of being Olympians as well. It’s as simple as that.

Unlike most amateur and professional sports in America and the world, African-American and Latinos make up a very small percentage of athletes that go on to compete in fencing at high levels. However, thanks to game-changing organizations like the Peter Westbrook foundation founded in 1991 by 1984 Olympic bronze medalist and six-time Olympian Peter Westbrook and Cobra, this percentage is increasing. 

photographed by Debra Scherer

Already in its 25th year of inception, the Peter Westbrook Foundation has sent several African- American fencers from its roster to the Summer Olympic Games. Peter Westbrook, who happens to be a New Jersey native himself is committed to instilling his students with essential life skills. It's organizations like this that are necessary for diversity in the sport. “When I grew up, I didn’t have a lot of role models. Kids need role models. You can’t be what you can’t see.” says Westbrook.

And Jersey City itself was recently ranked #2 in the entire nation as “most diverse cities” (Houston, Texas ranked #1). Which explains the scene when you walk into Cobra - the cultural diversity of the club stands out immediately. Fencing, traditionally an elitist European sport, is now a sport played by literally all cultures all over the globe. And despite the intense training these Cobra kids put in on a daily basis, they do wholeheartedly love the sport. “I love fencing compared to soccer. I love the swordplay and I love that you have to strategize. I just love everything about fencing!” said Ali Biviji, Cobra youth fencer. 

“I like the parries that you have to do in fencing. I like that you have to go fast and I really like that fencing is “1 vs 1” Adam Biviji added. And Steve Kaplan celebrates fencing’s true sense of internationality and diversity throughout the space at Cobra, assigning each column a flag and pinning up images of champions form fencing past “hopefully it brings a sense of history to the new generation of fencers," Kaplan said.

One could argue that the state of New Jersey serves as almost an unofficial fencing hub in America. It’s producing more and more Olympians thanks to facilities like Cobra that are housing, nurturing, and teaching these athletes from such a young age. In some instances, you even have whole families relocating to New Jersey mainly for this purpose. 

photographed by Debra Scherer

“I am a fourth-generation New Yorker. I moved to New Jersey when I was 26 because all of the Olympic fencing clubs were along the PATH train line. I could practice until 10pm, hop on the train and be home fifteen minutes later. One day, I was driving past a warehouse a couple of blocks from my home on my way to the airport for a fencing tournament when I saw a large yellow and black logo depicting what was clearly a fencer. I didn't think anything about it until years later when I started having kids. A good friend of mines started the épée practice at Cobra Fencing Club, so when my life got insanely difficult, that was the obvious place for my family and I to go in order to continue fencing. It's really nice to see friendships spanning multiple generations under one roof,” said Kathy Zucker, blogger and competitive fencer.

In some ways fencing tops all other sports, period. Athletes from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe are training everyday— right now, in fact, at their town’s local fencing club. And all with dreams of some day making it to the big Olympic stage. Fencing is a sport that does not get its proper due in the media compared to sports like basketball, football or tennis. However, the future is looking real bright for the sport thanks in part to these young champions who are destined to put fencing on every map!