THE MAGIC TOUCH
Sports offer us a lot of things. Skill. Coordination. Exercise. Camaraderie. Something to root for. Mascots. Bragging rights. And sometimes, even scholarships to top American universities. And when we think of these sports, ones that we start young and keep at for most of our lives, ones that might just take us to new towns, cities, or colleges, what comes to mind is usually basketball, baseball, football, soccer, and maybe even ice hockey or rugby. But a youth sports league you rarely hear about that is gaining traction in popularity, one that also requires youths to practice precise skills and dedicate themselves completely, isn’t really new at all, but in fact could be thought of as truly old fashioned. A sport that requires challenging a rival not so much to a game, or a match, or a race—but to a duel.
As Aziza Hassan, herself a graduate of the Peter Westbrook Foundation, recounts in her new piece, “The number of youth fencers getting involved in the sport is rising at an enormous rate in the U.S. And 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 their 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.“ So yes, fencing is becoming a popular sport for American kids. And not just from hearing D'Artagnan and his fellow Musketeers yell “All for one, and one for all!” Or dreaming of capturing the Iron Throne, or killing the Night King for that matter. Their excitement also comes from the master American swordsmen and women taking over the sport in real life. The success of several notable Olympic fencers, including Peter Westbrook, Mariel Zagunis, Miles Chamley-Watson, Race Imboden, Daryl Homer, Nzingha Prescod and many others has created momentum around the sport and truly put it on the map in the U.S. Read More About It Here
And sometimes it’s happening in the most curious of places. “The historic Lackawanna Warehouse building, located on an off block in downtown Jersey City, which was once a thriving center for warehousing and distribution by the railroad companies in the early 1900’s, is quite old. One could argue it could even use a little work. 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 find the Cobra Fencing Club. On any given weekday, several fencers, coaches, and parents all gather together at the Club which 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 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 a new generation of 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.” See All The Pictures Here
And just like how basketball, football, and notably crew, are all good avenues to take for getting into top American 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, Ohio State, and Temple University also have competitive NCAA-regulated championship-winning fencing teams. But also unlike most amateur and professional sports in America and the world, African-Americans 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 and the Cobra Fencing Club, this percentage is increasing. In fact, Jersey City itself was recently ranked #2 in the entire nation as “most diverse cities” (Houston, Texas ranked #1). Which explains the scene at Cobra—the cultural diversity of the club stands out immediately. 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 only through serious work for the athletes, just like in all sports.
One could argue that the state of New Jersey serves as almost an unofficial new fencing hub in America. It’s producing more and more Olympians thanks to facilities like the Cobra Fencing Club that are housing, nurturing, and teaching these athletes from such a young age. Fencing, traditionally an elitist European sport, is now practiced by all cultures all over the globe. In some ways, fencing tops all other sports, period. Athletes from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe are training everyday. And although dueling is mostly a thing of the past—most modern day fencers are looking merely for the touch—true swordsmen "never fear quarrels, but perhaps seek hazardous adventures."
photographs by Debra Scherer
And once upon a time, hazardous adventures were the norm. Well, at least in the literary worlds of Alexandre Dumas, who can be credited for single-handedly publicizing the sport of fencing to the world outside of the elites, aristocrats, and other privileged members of upper echelon society. He made it accessible to everyday people through his books.
Dumas was born in Villers-Cotterets Aisne, during the first French Republic on July 24th of 1802. Dumas' father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie was a Haitian-born French aristocrat. Dumas' grandmother Marie-Cessette Dumas was born a slave. Regardless of his ancestry, Alexandre Dumas would go on to become one of the most famous novelists and writers in history. You may have heard of a few of his works before, novels like The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Prince of Thieves (Robin Hood) and his first published novel, The Fencing Master.
These notable works by Dumas, where he constantly displayed his affinity for fencing, later went on to be adapted numerous times into screenplays and motion picture blockbusters centuries after his death, starring actors from Gene Kelly, to Vincent Price, to Leonardo DiCaprio to John Malkovich. Still, with his status and all his fancy credentials, Alexandre Dumas struggled in society with his African descent. Dumas once wrote: “My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends."
The multicultural aspect of fencing adds such beauty and integrity to the sport. The idea of all these individuals from all different backgrounds coming together and bringing their own experiences to the fencing strip is very intriguing. However, regardless of this, race has always been and still seems to be a topic of discussion in the sport today. It’s no secret that adversity is something constantly faced by minorities involved in this sport. The fact that these fencers continue to stand tall like any other athlete would and continue to fight (literally) regardless of this setback is the most intriguing aspect of the sport, hands down. And we’d like to think Dumas would feel the same.