Fencing requires speed, agility and you play with swords
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From Robin Hood to Captain Jack Sparrow, kids have always been enchanted by the pageantry of swashbuckling heroes. Some are content to recreate the experience by waving sticks at each other in the backyard. But others, like 13-year-old Sammie Doro of Arlington Heights, aren't content with make believe.
Sammie was 9 years old when her interest in fencing was piqued by a video she saw in school of wheelchair-bound athletes fencing.
"Some people like the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' thing. But, me, it was just seeing that video at school," she said.
Sammie's parents decided to nurture her interest and searched for fencing classes. They came across The Illinois Fencers Club (IFC) in Mount Prospect, an organization that has been teaching fencing to children for nine years and has been in existence for 40 years.
"We love Illinois Fencers Club. I think it's a well-rounded program," Denise Doro said. "There are people from around age 8 to over 70, so Sammie has the opportunity to fence people of all ages and all different levels of experience."
Kids age 7 and up begin with an introductory class if they're new to fencing, said Ina Hariznova, vice president and director of the youth program at IFC. "If they decide this is something (they) really like and want to stick with it, we develop two weapons: epee and foil."
IFC has an enrollment of about 60 students at varying levels. "We have a fully developed youth program," Harizanova said. "So we have room for kids coming to explore the sport, wanting to experience the role of knight, getting a good practice, feeling good about themselves, having friends."
IFC focuses on inner growth as well as physical prowess, a purpose that sets the club apart from other fencing clubs, according to Harizanova. "We're really offering a kind of balanced experience: physical fitness conditioning, socializing, working on communication, negotiating relationships and obviously learning the sport of fencing," she said.
"We have a lot of joint practices where the older members help the younger members, not just with advice but about our dual focus," she added. "We want the kids to be successful, not only in fencing, but school, home, friends. It builds their backgrounds at work later in life."
Sammie has flourished with the club, choosing to compete successfully in tournaments.
"She earned a No. 1 ranking in the Regional Youth Circuit Y-14 Women's event last December," her mother said.
Competitive fencing isn't mandatory, but for those who choose to compete, IFC offers coaching and encouragement.
"We have several kids nationally ranked for their age groups," Harizanova said.
Harizanova's fencing skills are an impressive peek into background of recognition in the sport. Many are from her native Bulgaria, where she earned numerous national titles and awards in fencing and coached men and women in national competition, including the Olympic tryouts in 2006.
She earned a degree in kinesiology before coming to the United States, where she earned a master's degree in educational leadership and is working on her doctorate in psychology. "I think it gives me the background I need," she said.
The Illinois Fencing Club also helped plant the seeds for The Barrington Fencing Club when it sent a representative to demonstrate the sport at the request of Jay Garek in 2004.
Garek's 9-year-old son developed an interest in fencing after attending a showing of the "The Pirates of the Caribbean."
"He thought the sword fighting was cool," Garek remembered.
It was an interest father and son would share.
"I had always been intrigued by fencing but had never fenced my self and so I did an Internet search and saw the nearest club was in Mount Prospect: The Illinois Fencers Club."
A daunting commute caused Garek to consider alternatives. Hoping to bring fencing to the Barrington area, he arranged for the demonstration.
The event was well attended and Garek was able to demonstrate a local interest to the South Barrington Park District, which hired fencing instructor Vladmir Lapshin, a fencer from Georgia in Russia.
Today the club meets on Tuesdays at St Michael's church and accepts children from age 11 and up for classes. The club will consider applicants as young as 9 if the parents are involved, however have found 11 to be the most appropriate age to learn the sport effectively.
Although the sport mimics lethal behavior, it's safe for kids according to Bob Baldwin, president of the Illinois Fencing Club.
"With any sport there's a risk of an injury, like a sprained ankle, etc," he said. "But, you're fully protected, in that you wear masks over your face of a very strong wire mesh; there's a bib that goes underneath that's padded and protects your neck."
Two layers of protection are added with an underarm protector and a heavy canvas glove is also worn, Baldwin said.
"You're fully protected," Baldwin added. "The weapons are designed to bend rather than stab into you."
Many beginners use a foil as a first weapon. This sword is lightweight and is used to target the torso only. Two other weapons used in fencing are the epee, a heavier weapon, which targets the entire body, and the sabre, which is lightweight and targets above the waist.
As a participant first learns to fence, the sword's tip is covered with a rubber device, which is taken off as the fencer advances. At that point, most fencers switch to electronic devices, which are wired to monitor the competition and score the event. At this, level females are required to add a chest protector to their uniform; some men also choose the protector.
At The Barrington Fencing Club, advanced volunteers teach the youth classes. "There are folks that are extremely experienced fencers, who still attend today, who were college coaches, who donate their time to instruct our new people," said Garek, who is now president of the club.
Once students have gained the skills needed to compete against other members, they are welcome to join the club and participate with fencers at their own level. "We started with five people and we average about 20 beginners and 20 to 30 experienced fencers every Tuesday night," Garek said.
Len Grazian, 16, of Barrington occasionally drops in to cross swords at the Barrington Fencing Club; however he began fencing at IFC and ended up at Red Star Fencing in Irving Park with teacher Peter Habala, a five-times national champion.
"I fence with foil and I went to Red Star because the fencing and coaching were more competitive," he said.
Grazian also sites the movies as an influence into his initial interest in fencing.
"I got into it because when I was 7 or 8, I really got into the 'Star Wars' movies, the light sabre stuff," he said. "My dad wanted to get me into something I would enjoy and since I like the light sabres, he got me into fencing.
"I did an eight-week beginners class. At first, I wasn't sure about how I felt about it. But I went to practice and generally had a good time," he said.
As Grazian progressed, he discovered that fencing had very little in common with how the sport is portrayed in the movies.
"It's much more strategic than anything you would see in a movie," he explained.
"I would describe it as between badminton and boxing. You need to be light on your feet and fast like in badminton and cover distance," he said. "You also need a strategic mind that a boxer has."
Grazian is highly ranked in the fencing world, and he has found that fencing is a great way to obtain physical fitness as well.
"The entire time you're fencing, you're in a squat and it's very dynamic, directional changes and explosive movements," he said. "So you definitely need respiratory endurance and strength in your quads and calves."
Looking back on his years as a fencer, Grazian believes that he gained more than the ability to successfully navigate the sport over time.
"Competing and fencing in general has taught me a lot about sportsmanship and self-control and stress management," he said.
However, in advising youngsters to participate, his endorsement is much simpler.
"It's fun. You get to play with swords. "