Sharpen body and mind by fencing

  • Some parents bring their kids in for fencing lessons, but often end up falling in love with the sport themselves.

    Some parents bring their kids in for fencing lessons, but often end up falling in love with the sport themselves. Washington Post photo

  • The author, right, fences with his wife Angeli, left, under the tutelage of D.C. Fencers Club coach Sally Gifford in Silver Spring, Md. Fencing exercises the body and mind.

    The author, right, fences with his wife Angeli, left, under the tutelage of D.C. Fencers Club coach Sally Gifford in Silver Spring, Md. Fencing exercises the body and mind. Washington Post photo

By Des Bieler
The Washington Post
Posted4/11/2015 7:00 AM

Plyometrics are all the rage these days, but who wants to jump on a box for an hour? Recently I checked out an activity that promised to have me gasping from all the explosive movements I was making -- while giving my brain an equally good workout.

My wife had been urging me to make fencing the next stop in my intermittent tour of offbeat-but-awesome sports, and, not for the first time, I'm glad I listened to her. (Note to self: Make sure wife reads previous sentence.)


I'm all for the kind of exercise where I don't realize at the time how hard I'm exerting myself, and fencing is great for that. As Ilya Lobanenkov, a coach at D.C. Fencers Club in Silver Spring, Md., put it, "It's an excellent workout, but you don't notice you're working out because someone is attacking you with a sword."

It's important to note that modern fencing, though of course descended from actual sword-fighting, is very safe, as the weapons are not sharp and one wears protective clothing. In fact, a 2012 study found that fencing was among the Olympic sports, summer or winter, least likely to injure athletes.

What fencing does do for its practitioners is provide a terrific workout, particularly for the lower body, as I discovered first-gloved-hand at Lobanenkov's facility. I was going to sweat a bit, regardless, with all the specialized apparel I was wearing, but after just a few minutes of hopping back and forth and lunging, I was dripping. (I also out-dueled my wife, another reason I was glad I listened to her.)

"When you're fencing, you're essentially in a squat position, and then you're lunging," Tim Morehouse, a two-time Olympian and a silver medalist at the 2008 Games, told me. "So for your lower body, you develop incredible leg strength, and you're also developing explosiveness and balance and precision with your legs."

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The upper body won't necessarily get quite as complete a workout -- although coordination, reflexes and hand speed should all improve -- but your brain will. "I like that, even if you're not incredibly strong, you can still outthink your opponent and it doesn't hold you back," said Claire Busch, an 18-year-old high school student and an assistant coach at DCFC.

Busch, clad in a Benedict Cumberbatch T-shirt with the message "Brainy Is the New Sexy," told me that she had grown up reading "books with sword-fighting and knights." She tried fencing at age 12 and was entering competitions within a few months.

Her speedy ascent from novice to competitor is hardly uncommon. Although fencing may take two lifetimes to master, as an old saying goes, beginners can learn the basics quickly and even start sparring on the first day.

And for beginners of a certain age, one of the attractions might be that you can take it up in, say, your 40s and, with diligence, progress to high-level tournaments.


"It is realistic to believe that you can represent your country at an international sporting event or world championship," said Russ Wilson, a coach at Virginia Academy of Fencing in Springfgield, Va.

Some parents bring their kids in for lessons because, as Wilson said, "they know that a lot of the best schools in the country also have fencing teams. … It's definitely a hook to get into a top school." But often, parents end up falling in love with the sport themselves.

Take Alison Igoe, for instance. The 59-year-old Washington resident started taking her daughter, now 13, to DCFC 2½ years ago, and she quickly realized she'd rather be in on the action than just sit and watch it. But Igoe, who swam and played basketball, found that fencing was more challenging than it looked.

"I was surprised, even as athletic as I've been all my life, how I had to still build up my legs and my arms and just my lung capacity because you're constantly moving," she told me.

Igoe also found the sport to be more "strategic" than she had assumed.

"I mean, you look at it and you say, 'Oh, how hard could that be? You're hitting people with one of those sticks, basically.' But it's very intricate, it's very intellectual."

Rolando Tucker Leon, an instructor at Fencing Sports Academy in Fairfax City, Va., put it in simple terms: "In fencing, you have to trick your opponent."

"You have to be hot in your heart, but cold in your mind," Tucker Leon, a bronze medal winner and the flag-bearer for Cuba at the 1996 Games, added. "It's a very difficult balance."

Speaking of finding a balance, it's worth pointing out that the sport delivers its physical benefits somewhat unevenly. Right-handers may eventually find that their right arms and legs are getting a bit stronger than the left, so it's important to either train on the non-dominant side or address that imbalance at a gym.

It's also worth mentioning that cost can be an issue. Equipment for beginners can run a couple hundred dollars, although it should last for a while, and on top of club membership and some coaching, those who want to compete must pay for travel and tournament registration.

Sally Gifford, a 48-year-old coach at DCFC, took up the sport only five years ago and has already become a three-time national finalist. She was among the many who also pointed out another thing that kept club members hooked: the sport's social aspect. Of course, many sports offer that, but fencing has a delightful twist.

"You come and meet your friends, and then you stab them," Gifford said.

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