On the fence

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD -- Fencing sabres at Red Stick School of Fencing on Monday, March 18.  Photo taken on Monday, March 18, 2013. MAGS OUT / INTERNET OUT / ONLINE OUT / NO SALES / TV OUT / FOREIGN OUT / LOUISIANA BUSINESS INC. OUT / GREATER BATON ROUGE BUSINESS REPORT OUT / 225 OUT / 10/12 OUT / IN REGISTER OUT / LBI CUSTOM PUBLICATIONS OUT / MANDATORY CREDIT : THE ADVOCATE/CATHERINE THRELKELD /
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BY KAREN MARTIN

Special Sections editor

Laurie Marcella, 44, and Beate Browning, 45, signed their kids up for a fencing class. The kind with swords, not pickets.

“We were sitting on the side,” recalls Browning, “and it looked like so much fun we wanted to jump up and join them.”

So they did.

That was more than two years ago, and the two moms are still regulars at the Red Stick School of Fencing on George O’Neal Road.

Marcella’s son quit the classes, but later rejoined a group with other 12-year-old boys. Browning’s daughter, Eliora, 12, attends right along with her mom.

“I just love gizzarding the boys,” says Eliora, giggling. “I stick them until they say ‘I better not mess with her.’”

Of course, when she says “stick them,” Eliora means she scores points on them by touching them with the sheathed point of her sword.

As Ryan O’Connor, 43, who runs the school points out, fencing is actually very safe. He says that the Olympic Committee studied injuries to athletes and found fencing was the second safest sport, surpassed only by target shooting.

O’Connor has been fencing for more than 20 years and calls the sport great exercise — at every level.

“It’s physical, it’s mental and it’s psychological,” he says. “It’s a lot like playing a game of chest at light speed. You look at the board. You look at how you move, how your opponent responds and how you respond to that.”

O’Connor thinks fencing is a good way to get in shape, no matter your age or current level of fitness.

“You can have a bad back or bad knees, and you can make adjustments,” he says. “I have some students who started fencing in their 40s and some students who are 8 years old. Tall, short, heavy, thin, you can do it. It all comes down to how you make adjustments.”

Fencing is particularly good for achieving flexibility, he says.

“You build up to that,” he says.

And, while your body is learning to bend and twist more easily, fencing also sharpens your mind and emotions.

“You have to be thinking ahead, multitasking,” says O’Connor, “and you have to keep your emotions in check. The person that does that when things aren’t going their way doesn’t have to be the smartest or the strongest or the most physically fit. The person who gets scored on is the first person who makes a mistake.”

At one Monday night class, 16 students — about equally divided between men and women — assembled to learn how to thrust and parry. After a series of warm-up moves, they donned the gear — a plastic molded chest protector, a heavy canvas underarm protector, a heavy jacket and pants, gloves and the beekeeper-like mask. All told, the equipment runs from $200 to “as high as you want to spend,” O’Connor says.

But, he says, to get started, you really only need to spend about $30 for the gloves and underarm protector. “Everything else we’ll let you use at first,” he says.

It’s a lot to wear and it gets hot.

That’s when the thermostat was dropped even lower, and the students began to move in steps almost ballerina-like in nature.

“Advance and make contact,” O’Connor instructs as the students pair up and one moves toward the other. “Push down with your back foot and then lunge as you push up.”

Again and again they practiced the move that would allow them to touch the tip of their sword to their opponent’s chest, which would earn them a point in competition.

Michele Jasman, 45, takes a break and removes her mask.

She’s O’Connor’s wife, and has only been fencing a couple of years.

“I like that anybody can do it,” she says, adding that some of the fastest blade work you’ll ever see is between wheelchair-bound opponents.

In addition to fencing, Jasman says she’s training for a 5K.

“This helps build your endurance,” she says, “and it’s not so knee-jangling pounding like you get with running.”

Are there any drawbacks to fencing?

“Well,” she says with a laugh, “the masks don’t make you hair look too good.”

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