Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Fencing Slashes Through RVA

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“Tucked away” is one way to describe the few outlets for sport Fencing in Richmond. But if you look hard enough you’re liable to stumble across a unique, challenging, and rewarding activity accessible to almost everyone.

Located at 3411 Carlton Street, in the industrial section of town between former Ice bars, strip clubs, thrift stores, and machine shops lies a beautifully kept training facility for the 1500 year old sport.

The Richmond Fencing Club leased the warehouse space in October 2005 and they immediately went to work. Scott O’Neal, a coach at the club, details the project.

Scott O'Neal

“The very first thing we did, in a weekend, a very long weekend, was construct the floor, it’s based on a dance floor. The entire thing is mounted on rubber cushions, there are about 4000 of them under the floor. If you bounce on it, it gives it kind of a spring as opposed to the concrete underneath.”

O’Neal fenced in college at Purdue, moving to Richmond in 2003. He’s seen the Richmond Fencing club move from rec-centers to dance studios, and finally to their impressive current location. He said this is often the path for the uncommon sport.

“Fencing clubs start wherever they can find a place, it depends on the means to get involved. RFC for a long time was associated with VCU and operated out of the rec-centers there, before going their own way. I know several clubs that started out meeting in churches or renting gym space. There are still plenty of clubs that rent space where ever they can find a place.”

Steeped in tradition, fencing, like any sport, has rules and procedures, but it is mainly broken into three different weapon styles; Foil, Epee, and Saber. O’Neal explains their differences.

“So the first one, and what we usually teach beginner fencers is Foil. Foil has a limited target area. You can only hit the torso, it can be the front or the back, but the arms, legs, and head are off target. Foil also has a rule called “right of way” which basically says the person who’s attacking has the right to make an attack and you are required to defend yourself. IT comes from the fact that , in its early days, Foil was a training weapon. And so you were being taught that if someone’s attacking you, you first stop their attack or make them miss before you make a move of your own.

Epee is a little more like dueling. The entire body is a valid target area. You can be hit on the foot or the hand or the torso, it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same. And it doesn’t matter who’s defending or who’s attacking, all the matters is who hits first.

Saber is a little different than the other two. The target area is everything from the waist up. Unlike the other 2 weapons, with saber you can hit with any part of the blade, with foil and Epee, you can only score by hitting with the tip of the blade; with saber, you can actually hit with slashing motions.”

Anna Marie Wood, a mother from Montpelier, got involved in fencing last fall after her kids showed interest in sword play. She did some research, and soon all three Wood family members were enrolled in an eight-week course. She says fencing brought out new talents she never knew she had.

“It was awesome, it was great fun. For me, it was coming out of my comfort zone. When you have someone coming at you, they are being aggressive and coming at you, everything you learned comes out and I surprised even myself”

Danny Anderson Senior got into fencing in a similar fashion, after Danny Jr. showed interest. Danny said Junior’s other athletic investment, football, shared similar fundamental skills.

“You wondering the weirdness between football and fencing. It’s footwork. He has to run, he has to keep his balance; he has to keep his feet. It helps him a ton when he’s on the field playing, his footwork is faster than most of the free safeties, and he’s a lineman”

He also said the financial investment of fencing isn’t as drastic as football.

“To start –it’s really an inexpensive sport. Football in this area, you’re gonna have to supply the helmet and the shoulder pads, you’re gonna lay down $300; for tournament fencing for my son and daughter, it costs me about $250 apiece. But that’s complete.

The difference is, I’ve had to replace his helmet, twice; he outgrows them. Shoulder pads, twice. Versus this were; the jacket - you can buy them a little bit bigger, they don’t have to be fitted - but moneywise of the two sports, fencing is actually a little bit cheaper … you got the cleats too.”

Take a drive out Route 360 east for about 20 minutes and you’ll find 4032 Mechanicsville Turnpike, another fencing academy in between farm fields. The unlikely location was a garden center for 30 years and when it was time to sell the lot, the neighbors wanted to see another local business take over. That’s where Bobby and Donna Robinson come in. They are the owners and coaches at Mechanicsville Fencing Academy.

The Robinsons started their academy in 2003 with humble beginnings, but before long, it was a house of Olympic level athleticism.

Donna Robinson

“My husband Fenced in college, and when we moved back here to Virginia and when the kids got old enough, he liked the idea of getting the kids involved in the sport. So he actually start started out with only or six] students. We had three kids go to junior Olympics within 2 years, so we just sort of expanded after that.”

Bobby Robinson’s enthusiasm is contagious. Watching a class being taught, you could see the excitement and drive in both the kids’ and Bobby’s eyes. He describes fencing as much more than two people dueling.

“It’s as much a mental game as a physical game. I’ve seen a 77-year-old man beat 20-year-old kids like butter. He knew exactly what to do, he wasn’t fast. I saw him and said “this is gonna be fast” cause he was fencing a young kid like you. The kid looked really good too. The little kid goes ‘AHHHH!’ guy goes back, touches him on the wrist ‘bam!’ There was 180 people in that tournament, dude ended up 7th out of pools.”

Bobby says fencing compares to a significantly lower-key board game.

“Probably the best description of fencing is ‘physical chess.’ Where you actually maneuver positions and lay lines. You have to be able to think that stuff out and then actively do it.”

Ken Boyd, a two-year veteran of the Richmond Fencing club, said fencing compares to a a significantly lower-key board game, adding the physical workout didn’t hurt his heart either

“Chess has moves; there’s offence/defense, there’s a setup. We call ‘em feints,where I come at you and make you wanna come this way, then I’ll come under you and touch you, kind of make you silly for one minute, then you figure it out and make me look silly. It’s good exercise, I push it towards cardiovascular, it’s great for me. I’m in my 50’s, so if I can do it, other people can do it too.”

Back in Mechanicsville, 11-year-old Matthew Ridder has spent the past nine months honing his fencing skills. He played soccer before, but now only fences. He says he liked the intellectual strain as well as the physical.

“Well, it challenges your mind too, and not just your body”

Jenna Robinson, daughter of Donna and Bobby, has spent the better part of her young life in fencing gear. After seven years of intense training, she now helps her parents with coaching at the Mechanicsville academy. She said she had fallen in love with the kids and wanted to stress that anyone who was interested should not be afraid to don a lame and enter the strip.

“Some people who can’t do a lot of other sports, one of my students can’t use his right arm or left leg, but he can still do this. Anyone can come and do it, so come give it a try.”

Jenna Robinson, Han Tam, and Shane Robinson

For Richmond Independent Radio News, I’m Brad Kutner

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