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August 9, 2011 > Gateway to appreciation of sports

Gateway to appreciation of sports

By Giovanni Albanese Jr.
Photos By Mike Heightchew

Combining the physicality and tactical nature of boxing and the approach of forcing your opponent to respond how you want them to, the sport of fencing is not only a competition, it's an experience to learn who you are.

"When you're in a tough situation, can you rise to the occasion or fall back shy to take chances?" asks Fremont Fencers founder Will Brown. "It's a really good sport for building confidence for those who may not otherwise be involved in sports."

A member of the United States Fencing Association, Brown uses Fremont Fencers as a way to teach the youths of today -- from ages 7-19 -- the art of fencing. Teamed with the City of Fremont Parks and Recreation, Fremont Fencers offers classes year round. Classes are broken up for youth (7-12) and teens (13-19).

For the Youth class, Brown takes more of an instructional approach, with kids -- roughly 13 in a class -- in full gear. In the instructional class, the youths learn how to hit and move; at the end of the session, Brown allows for free fencing competition, as long as the students stay within the rules.

In the teen classes, a more intermediate level, Brown leads the students through warm ups, footwork and drills to practice moves and learn new actions, followed by free fencing for the final half hour to hour of the two-hour session.

Fencing is a physical, one-on-one sport, where two competitors are situated on a 14-meter long strip, about two meters wide, going forward and back to earn touches, matches typically are five-touch competitions. However, despite the use of a blade, the most common injuries in fencing, according to Brown, are twisted ankles and tennis elbow.

Before you step onto a fencing strip, you need to be in full protective gear. A mask protects your face; a bib, attached to the mask, protects your neck; a fencing jacket and plastron jacket underneath protect the torso; a glove protects your hand that holds the blade; and the knickers pants protect the upper leg, above the knee. Also on the body is a cord that is electronically hooked up to lights that are on the strip, determining which fencer got the hit first (at higher levels, the electronic scoring is done wirelessly).

When strapped in the full protective gear, competitors go after each other with one of three blades: foil, epee or sabre. Each blade determines which type of bout you are playing.

Foil is a thrusting weapon in which you can only hit the torso. A metallic vest called a lame is worn as part of the electronic scoring to ensure the torso -- either front or back, no arms -- is hit. Foil is a right of way competition in which an aggressor has opportunity to hit opponent. If the person on the defensive thrusts forward for the hit while the aggressor also gets a hit, the aggressor gets credit for the touch; however, if the aggressor misses and the opponent lunges for the hit, that person gets credit for the touch.

Epee is also a thrusting weapon, which is slightly bigger and heavier than the foil. In epee bouts, fencers can hit any part of the body, head to toe. On the electronic strip, where the foil has one second lockout (frozen on the blade hitting), the epee has a 1-25ths of a second lockout. Should both competitors hit at the same time, each is awarded a touch. Unlike the foil, the epee is not a right of way competition; whoever hits first, gets the touch.

Sabre, like foil, is a right of way weapon. However, with sabre, unlike foil and epee, you can strike any part of the body above the waist with a thrusting or slicing technique. In sabre events, the lockout mechanism is much tighter than that of foil.

Fremont Fencers holds its camps at the Centerville Community Center in Fremont, but typically does not utilize the electronic mat as Brown has learned the fencers are there for more recreational purposes than to move on to competitions.

Brown, 42, grew to love fencing in a San Jose State PE class in 1987. Upon the completion of that school year, Brown got more involved when he trained at Halberstadt in San Francisco. After fencing locally, Brown expanded his background by fencing on the national level, then training in Germany, competing in lower level international competitions. In total, Brown, who teaches English at Piedmont Hills High School, has 24 years of fencing experience.

With all his experience, Brown coordinated with the City of Fremont to hold fencing classes starting in 1994. In the early stages, the hope was to grow into a free-standing club with fencers competing in local and national competitions. Overtime, Brown realized his mission needed to be altered.

"From 1995 through 2000, we developed a few fencers that went on to compete on the local and national level, with a few earning national points," said Brown. "But the new batch from 2000 on, they have come for more of a recreational; they didn't have the drive to compete at tournaments."

For those who have come since 2000, Brown is leaning through his students that fencing is more about finding oneself than anything.

"Some of the benefits you learn in fencing are hand-eye coordination, balance and poise," said Brown. "But it goes deeper than that. Since it's an individual sport, you learn more about yourself."

Whether you're athletic or not, in fencing, the playing field is even. And it even opens your eyes to the rest of the sports world, proving fencing is more than a sword battle.

"Anyone who's a natural athlete is going to have an advantage over someone else, but one thing about fencing is that so much of it is learned movement, not natural movement, and even a good athlete is going to have to learn how to move and it evens the competition out," said Brown. "For a lot of people who say they don't like sports, they try fencing and find they do like it, and see some of the benefits that all sports have."

To get involved in Brown's Fremont Fencers class, call the Centerville Community Center at 510-791-4324 or log onto For more information on Fremont Fencers, visit or email Brown at

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