‘En garde!’

Fencing is one of only four sports included in every Olympics since 1896. At Beersheba’s Academy of Fencing, it’s thrust and parry all the way.

Fencing 521 (photo credit: Quentin Queit)
Fencing 521
(photo credit: Quentin Queit)
Because of its elegance and nobility, fencing carries the sobriquet “The Forgotten Sport of Kings” – but you’d never know it from looking at the kids in the Beersheba Academy of Fencing.
Drop in any Thursday afternoon and catch the “Junior” class – eight- to 14-year-olds – doing their thing, all decked out with real foils, protective vests and face masks. A class for adults – 15 and over – follows, as men and women mostly in their 20s and 30s learn to advance, lunge, parry and riposte.
Far from being forgotten, fencing appears to be thriving like never before.
Beersheba’s fencing club, started two decades ago by veteran fencer Gregory Gross, recently got a boost when Peter Harris, a fencing master from London, made aliya and joined forces with Roy Gross, Gregory’s son and current head of the academy, to beef up the local team.
“I came from London via the US in 2009,” Harris says. “I moved into the Beersheba absorption center, and couldn’t believe how lucky I was. The local fencing club’s headquarters were two streets away – I’ve never had a club that convenient before. I started teaching right away.
“I’ve been fencing for about 40 years, and now teach classes and private lessons in foil, epee and saber. I work with theater companies too, if they’re staging a fencing match and want to make it accurate.”
THE POPULARITY of fencing in these parts shouldn’t be a surprise. Pictorial carvings of primitive fencing bouts dating back to 1200 BCE have been found in a temple in Luxor, Egypt. Civilizations in China, Persia, Babylonia, Japan and Greece all trained their people in swordplay for combat.
As a sport instead of self-defense, fencing came into its own during the 14th or 15th century, when the advent of armor made battling with swords impractical. When firearms came along and made armor obsolete, the art of swordplay for beauty and the athleticism of it arose.
As a competitive sport, fencing is unique. It is one of only four sports that have been included in every Olympics since 1896. But beyond sport, fencing is also an art, an ancient graceful symbol of power coupled with a highly individualistic form of expression.
Not to mention that fencing is great exercise. Ask anyone who’s ever spent an hour in a fencing class, and they’ll testify as to the physical workout it offers.
“That’s because in fencing you use muscles you don’t ordinarily use,” Harris notes. “No part of fencing comes naturally. Every movement has to be taught. And you have to work to perfect each move, every countermove, watching your stance and your footwork, over and over.
“It’s a lifetime occupation. You never stop working at it. Every little thing matters. If your front foot is twisted to the side just a tiny bit, your lunge won’t be straight and you lose – true, you won’t lose your life anymore, but you might lose the match.”
The kids in the gym sparring with their foils don’t seem to think they’re working.
“They love it,” Harris grins. “Put a sword in a kid’s hand and every one of them will see themselves as Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. We make it fun for the kids – actually, we make it fun for the adults, too, although we’re more subtle about it for the adults,” Harris laughs.
“Classes start with a basic warm-up, then we do lunges all around the gym, two by two, so I can check to see how they’re progressing. Then everyone puts on their equipment – we supply everything for beginners, but people who get serious about the sport usually want their own. There’s a heavy quilted vest, an impermeable face mask, gloves to protect the hands, and then the foils themselves.
“The kids all fence with foils, whereas with adults, we also instruct in epee – the big brother of the foil, a bigger, heavier sword – and the saber, a flat cutting blade with a knuckle guard.
“We play some games: Someone holds a glove up on the wall, as high as they can reach. They drop the glove, and then the other guy has to pin it to the wall before it hits the floor. It’s great for handeye coordination. Then we play ‘Simon says,’ also famous in fencing circles.
“A major part of the art of fencing is the mental focus and concentration required. Fencing is the chess of sports – it’s a mental game as much as a physical one. A little game of ‘Simon says’ helps develop that intense focus you need.”
That’s another thing about fencing, Harris says: how it helps develop all kinds of desirable character traits.
“It’s a good sport for kids with ADD because it’s highly repetitive and teaches you how to focus and concentrate. Some corporations encourage their employees to study fencing.
“You have to think all the time. Second by second, you have to be assessing your opponent, plotting how you can outwit him, force him to play into your strengths, not his.
“BUT THE truth is, anyone between the ages of eight and 80 can fence. Even though it’s a very demanding sport, there’s no disability that prohibits participation.
“One of my favorite examples is a kid I taught in Florida. He had some problem with his legs and was in a wheelchair when we began. We started teaching him right there, in his wheelchair. He began to get better and learned how to stand again. Then we gradually brought him up to full participation, teaching him the footwork. He got to be quite good – and, most importantly, he loved it. It was a sport he could play along with everyone else, even when he was in the chair.”
Harris says his own interest in fencing came from the movies.
“I’m just like everyone else,” he laughs. “I saw a movie when I was 13, and that was it for me – I wanted to learn to fence like that more than anything. I loved the artistry and skill. Even today, movies are our major recruitment tool. Whenever a fencing film comes out, we get an influx of students, whether it’s Star Wars, Braveheart, The Princess Bride or any of the newer ones, The Prince of Persia, and now, Pirates of the Caribbean. They’ve all brought in students.
“After all, where else are you going to see fencing? The competitions are rarely televised. In fact, the Beijing Olympics were the last time, and then only because the US ladies’ team was winning medals.”
Roy Gross, head of the Beersheba club, may be the exception to the rule.
“I’ve been fencing since I was just six,” the 21-year-old says. “My father came from Russia and had fenced there, so both my brother and I got involved as kids.”
For the Gross brothers, fencing is all about competing – and winning. Both regularly fly all over the world to compete.
“These kids here tonight are being trained to win,” Gross says. “This isn’t just exercise. Fencing is a learned skill, and the more time you put into it, the better you’ll be.
“It takes a certain mental attitude to succeed – you’ll either like the sport, or not. And it’s not like running, where natural ability counts. In fencing, you can’t just pick up a sword and fence – you have to be taught. We hope we’re training a few new champions here.”
One of them might be Nadav, a pint-sized Prince Valiant-lookalike.
“I come just because I love it,” the 10-year-old says with an infectious grin. “I came one time just to watch, and right away I knew I wanted to fence. I’ve been coming for almost two years now, and I’m getting pretty good.
“I like putting on all the equipment, like this heavy vest. We use real swords, but with this vest, they can’t hurt me even if I get stabbed.”
Fifteen-year-old Adam Zaretsky has already decided on fencing as a career.
“I started in the fourth grade,” he says, “I compete in Israeli championships and others. I tried karate first, but after a while I didn’t enjoy that very much. I came here to see what fencing was like. I tried it out for a couple of weeks, and now I love it.
“This isn’t a hobby for me. I’m planning on making it my career.”
What’s so fascinating about fencing?
“Fencing combines mental power with physical ability and dexterity,” Zaretsky says.” It’s a very complicated sport. Probably the hardest thing is the psychological aspect. You have to think all the time, assess your opponent, plan ahead. If you allow anything at all to distract you, you lose your concentration – and you’ll lose the match.”
Unfortunately for Beersheba, but good for fencing in Israel, Harris will soon be moving on.
“At the start of the fall semester, I’ve agreed with the Israeli Fencing Federation to open three new fencing clubs, one each in Rishon Lezion, Holon and Bat Yam.
“I couldn’t start a new club in Beersheba, since there’s this excellent club already here. But in the center, new clubs are needed, so we negotiated three locations. I’m also the Israeli rep for Leon Paul, the British fencing equipment manufacturer.
“We’re just getting ready to hit the Israeli market – in fact, right now I’m preparing all the price lists in Hebrew, Russian and English. Thanks to Roy, my fencing Hebrew is pretty good. He started by writing out a list of fencing words and terms for me, and now I’m actually teaching in Hebrew.
“When I went back to England in October for my most recent set of qualifying tests, I had to stop and think to do it in French.”
Fencing as a forgotten sport? Not at all. Zaretsky sums up its practicality for modern life: “Fencing teaches you that in life you’ll always have an opponent, someone who wants to win just as much as you do. You’ve got to be awake and aware all the time.”