This article was originally published in the Aug. 21, 2016 edition of the Sun.
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If football, baseball, basketball and other traditional sports aren’t your thing, the Worcester Fencing Club offers a unique athletic endeavor, full of strategy and history dating back centuries.
The history of Worcester’s fencing club is a bit shorter. The club was founded in 1998, but purchased three years ago by accomplished competitive fencer and coach Syd Fadner.
Fadner began fencing in her 20s while looking for something different after college, but she quickly became a key figure at the Boston Fencing Club. A decade later, Fadner was named Boston College’s fencing coach, helped launch the school’s varsity fencing program, and turned it into one of the best NCAA fencing programs in New England.
Now in Worcester, Fadner sees an opportunity to teach the sport to an even younger generation, and turn a curiosity into a passion.
“Most kids [who] come in here just want to fight swords,” Fadner said. “You know, they’ve seen it in ‘Star Wars,’ or some swashbuckling movie, and they want to do it themselves. Or, we get parents who find their kids fighting with sticks and they want to channel that energy.
“We show them the strategies. Fencing is like any other sport; there are strategies and tactics you use to win, and that’s the part I really want to teach our young students.
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“We haven’t had any go to college for fencing yet, but I hope some of our current kids will. That’s the goal.”
Along with the youth program, the club also offers adult fencing classes, and open adult fencing where fencers of different skill levels can come and simply compete.
Fadner will often accompany her younger fencers to regional competitions to offer coaching and support, but ultimately hopes to push them to the level where they don’t always need her.
One of those young fencers is 14-year-old Cole Warren. A three-year veteran of the Worcester Fencing Club, Warren is set to begin high school at Tantasqua Regional in Sturbridge, but will still a few nights each week be working on his swordsmanship at the Worcester Fencing Club.
“I guess I started (fencing) because I wanted to try something new,” Warren said. “You see so much about it on television and movies, and it seems like something a little different. So I gave it a try, and I liked it and stuck with it. Now I’m just trying to get better.”
At the club, students are trained in the three different styles of fencing, which each feature a different weapon and set of rules.
Warren is most fond of foil, which features a lighter sword and only awards points for hits on the opponent’s torso. Foil also features a “right of way” rule, which means a fencer is only awarded points for strikes where they initiate the attack, or establish “priority.”
Basically, if one fencer begins executing an attack first, they have priority, and the opposing fencer cannot score a point until they establish priority. That means you can’t just poke your opponent as they lean forward. Instead, you must dodge or block your opponent’s attack, then go on the attack yourself.
This adds an element of strategy to foil not present in épée, which uses a heavier weapon and doesn’t require a fencer to establish priority. Furthermore, the entire body of your opponent can now be struck, making épée a slower, more cautious brand of fencing, predicated on sudden, quick movements.
“I think (foil) is the most fun, because in épée you have to go really slow. Someone can just stab you anywhere and it’s over,” Warren said. “And (sabre) is basically rock-paper-scissors, because they’ll just run at you and stuff … I like the strategy and limited target zone.”
Sabre, which features the largest weapon and forces a fencer to establish priority, is the only form where an attacker can slash from the side, adding a different plane of offense. The target area is only the upper body.
Usually, a fencer will choose one weapon to specialize in, though the club teaches youth students all three. Warren’s preference for foil lies in its inherent strategy and limited offensive opportunities.
For her part, coach Fadner also prefers foil, though she has participated in national finals using all three weapons.
The summer is an exciting time for the Worcester Fencing Club, especially a summer coinciding with the Olympic games. Fadner has noticed a bump in participation as Olympic fencing has sparked some interest, but the summer also means she’s around the club more often.
During the college fencing season, which runs from October to March, Fadner will still coach at the club, but the demands of coaching at the Division 1 level obviously limit her time in Worcester.
To combat that, Fadner has brought on a number of assistant coaches, including former student Dezrah Blinn. Dez, as he’s known to students, started taking lessons at the club three years ago, shortly after Fadner arrived, and instantly was drawn to Fadner’s coaching style, and the Worcester fencing community.
Blinn came in with some experience, having fenced while living in Maine 15 years ago, and began because he too was looking for something different.
“I grew up as a pretty standard geek,” Blinn said with a smile. “I wasn’t a sports kid in high school, at all. I was into fantasy novels and all that, so when I first started I was like, ‘Swords!’
“You get a lot of people coming in here and they want to pin swords, but they find out that fencing is actually about small, quick actions. They either think that’s really cool, like I did, or they want to hack away, and it isn’t for them.”
The Worcester Fencing Club offers classes and competition opportunities for all ages. The club is holding an open house Sept. 1, 6:30-8:30 p.m., which will allow potential fencers the chance to tour the Stafford Street facility, and receive a free mini-lesson. For more information, head to WorcesterFencing.com.
Joe Parello is a deputy editor and cofounder of SuiteSports.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.