Robyn Mertel didn’t start fencing until she was 40 years old. “It’s good exercise and an unusual sport,” she said. “It’s a great sport to keep you healthy and keep your mind young.”
Though fencing might conjure up images of the Three Musketeers shouting “En Garde,” Mertel and her daughter practice the sport at the Lincoln Square Fencing Club, founded in 2008 by Clinton Smith, who rents space in the basement of Luther Memorial Church, 2500 W. Wilson Ave. The club offers classes to adults and children, teaching the rules, strategies and techniques of fencing. Although the modern version is decidedly more padded, safe and electronic than the sport was back in its dueling days, fencing still maintains its sense of formality and tradition.
Often called a physical game of chess, fencing features attack and counterattack, steadily getting to know an opponent before making a successful strike. As a sport, it requires as much agility as it does focus.
“A lot of it is finding a person’s telltale sign,” said Mertel. “You get to know your opponent, like bluffing in poker.”
In addition to the mental aspects, fencing is a very physical sport. The club frequently conducts conditioning sessions across the street at Waters Elementary, where the monkey bars are used for pull-ups. It’s this combination of mind and body that draws many fencers to the sport, regardless of age, according to Smith, who’s also the lead instructor at LSFC.
“There are specific moves, but how you execute it is up to you,” he said. “Each time that you fight, there is a high degree of attention required. Lose focus for a second and you get hit.”
Smith took up fencing when he was in junior high school and started coaching in 1997. He moved from Maine to Chicago in 2003, and founded the Lincoln Square Fencing Club in 2008. Looking for a place close to home to hold classes, he approached Luther Memorial and asked to use the church’s basement. Most of the students are drawn from the surrounding neighborhood.
Though fencing has a large following in New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles, the sport is still relatively unknown in Chicago, where its supporters are concentrated in a small, tight-knit community. “It’s becoming more popular in high school,” Smith said. “Coaches are trying to grow the sport, and we encourage kids to bring in their friends.”
One of the reasons fencing may be gaining ground with elementary and high school students is the emphasis on concentration and strategy, combined with physical exertion.
“One of the students that we had started taking lessons and became more focused,” said Sara Schroder, an assistant at the club who helps teach children’s classes. The student was struggling in school, but her grades improved after joining the club.
Fencing benefits its older practitioners as well. “I knew a guy who was 76 and fencing,” Mertel said. “Fencing adjusts to all ages. It is more thinking than a lot of other sports.”
Modern fencing traces its roots to the 19th Century. Originally created for dueling between aristocratic gentleman, fencing continued as a sport with tournaments and championships; modern U.S. fencing clubs were established in the 1880s. Today, electronic machines keep track of scores and dueling has long since been abandoned, but echoes of the earlier tradition remain: For example, the fencing strip or “piste” replicates the field of combat in confined quarters such as a castle hallway, and each match starts with a salute.
There are three weapons used in modern fencing: the foil, sabre and épée. (Even though the tip of the fencing weapon is the second-fastest moving object in sport, after the marksman’s bullet, Schroder noted that the sport is extremely safe with few injuries.) The Lincoln Square Fencing Club focuses on the foil and sabre, which emphasize hits to the upper torso. In foil dueling, only contact with the tip of the sword counts as a hit; in saber dueling, points can be scored with the edges or sides of the blade, creating a more fast-paced duel.
The combination of rapid sword play with back-and-forth strategy makes fencing difficult to master, and even though the footwork can be awkward, Smith says it’s a life-long learning process that allows anyone at any age to enhance their analytical and physical skills. Plus, the romantic associations with the Three Musketeers and the gentleman’s rules of dueling still exist. Said Schroder: “When I tell people I fence, they always say, ‘That’s really cool.’”
The Lincoln Square Fencing Club meets Monday, Thursday and Saturday at Luther Memorial Church. For more information, visit the club’s website.