It’s Olympic Day at Barcroft Sports and Fitness Center, and the Arlington Fencers’ Club is here to demystify the sport for a new generation. Club coach Becca Ward, 24, is a veteran Olympian, having won two bronze medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in women’s sabre. One of her medals is currently being passed among an awestruck audience of young fencers and their parents as Rick Orli, AFC founder and head coach, shows the group the different fencing blades.
Ward explains that what most think of as fencing refers to three varieties of the sport — foil, epee and sabre, from lightest blade to heaviest — each with slightly different rules and equipment. “Fencing is a lot like racket sports,” she explains. “Same general concept, but you’ve got three separate sports — tennis, squash and racquetball.”
As the medal makes its rounds, Ward fields questions about preparing for the Olympics. “I normally fenced five days a week for 2 1 / 2 hours,” she told the group. “When I was training for the Olympics, I didn’t go to high school — I took correspondence classes. A lot of travel for competition, lots of cross-trainings, a lot of conditioning, a lot of lessons, a lot of everything.” These days, Ward lives in the District and works on the Hill in the office of Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).
Orli started the Arlington Fencers’ Club three years ago; its roughly 150 members range in age from 7 to 17. After spending a number of years as a fencing teacher, Orli switched to kendo, a Japanese martial art where competitors wield two-handed bamboo swords. But when his daughter Alexa expressed interest in fencing, he switched gears again, starting the nonprofit club in April 2011 to practice and coach.
The group, Orli points out, has a connection to local history. Arlington County was named after the Earl of Arlington, Henry Bennet, whose portraits show a man with a scar over his nose — a scar from a sabre wound incurred during a battle in 1644.
They meet Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings at the Cherrydale Volunteer Firehouse, where twelve coaches and their assistants teach foil, epee and sabre. The club also hosts middle school meetings after school at Kenmore, Williamsburg and Thomas Jefferson and recently started a high school group at H-B Woodlawn. Orli hopes to expand the reach of the group to other high schools as his middle school students grow older and continue fencing.
As the hands-on portion of the club’s Olympic Day activities gets underway, Tuckahoe third-grader Griffin Wells is matched with a fencing partner to engage in free play while his mother, Kim Wells, observes. Griffin has fenced for two years, taking classes at the Virginia Academy of Fencing. His mother says he loves the sport. “It’s something that sets him apart from other kids, and he likes that. For little boys it’s good: It’s one-on-one, it’s focus and strategy, and it’s really helped him to work on his logic.”
Ward says fencing tends to attract kids with certain personality traits — “kids who don’t necessarily love big team sports, or are very analytical and want a little more mental game from athletics,” she says. “Kids who are really crafty love fencing.”
The Olympian urges beginners not to get discouraged if they don’t take to it right away. “It’s a very technical sport. You have to get that down, then it starts getting a lot more fun,” Ward says. “Once they get their foundation, a whole new world will open up.”
Bettina Lanyi is a freelance writer.