Debbie Croft: Merced College fencing class leads to sword play

01/09/2014 11:13 PM

01/09/2014 11:25 PM

For those who dream of blades glinting and metal clashing – whose favorite stories occur in a distant era of battles won by daring swordsmen – a fencing class just might be in order.

Fred Friedland teaches “Fencing for Fun” for the Merced College Community Services program. As a graduate student, he took up fencing because he had been fascinated by it most of his life.

After giving private lessons for a few years, he met Joe Bricky, a skilled fencer. Together the two men taught fencing at the college. But when Bricky’s work responsibilities interfered, Friedland carried on with the class as a solo instructor and continued to do so for about 10 years.

Now after 23 years he says, “I’m still learning, so I guess one could say it’s a lifetime sport.”

In 2013 Fred taught the class in Mariposa. Ages of students varied, with the youngest 14 and the oldest 75.

When Benny Mace, age 14, wanted to learn fencing, his dad, Tim, took him to the first class. Friedland talked Tim into trying it. “It’s a lot of fun, and we’ve both gotten better,” says Tim.

Once students learn the basics, Friedland pairs them for “free fencing,” which is an unofficial, noncompetitive match against an opponent.

Two fencers stand facing each other. At the beginning of a bout the referee makes the calls: “Salute,” “En garde,” “Ready on my left?” “Ready on my right?” and “Fence.”

Judges are positioned to watch for hits of the blades against the opponent’s torso. Each target hit earns one point, and five points win the bout. Fencers take steps forward, backward or to the side, and lunge for an attack. Some work aggressively, others more cautiously.

“Warn,” “Passé,” “Parry,” “Touch” and “Halt” are calls made throughout the match. At the end both fencers shake hands.

Fencers wear white jackets and masks, with one glove for the hand gripping the sword. The arm not holding the sword is usually held behind the shoulder, out to the side or tucked behind the back. Protective gear is required for tournaments. A rubber cap covers the tip of the foil in free fencing.

. Within four to six months of taking lessons, students usually have learned enough to execute properly and engage in bouts.

Two students who excelled were Connor Busby, 17, who learned fencing before moving to Mariposa, and Allison Oldfield, a high school senior, who knew nothing about the sport other than how cool it looked.

Friedland says of the two teens, “Allison surprised all of us; she has a native talent. And Connor kept me on my toes.”

Allison admitted her goal last semester was to beat Connor, but she never did.

The older participants enjoy the activity, as it develops agility and quicker reflexes. Technique, speed and strategy can take years to perfect. Each fencer must learn when to switch from offensive to defensive technique in order to win a match.

Karen LeCocq, an art professor at UC Merced, first took fencing last year. “I’ve always wanted to be a swashbuckling heroine,” she admits.

But it isn’t without risks. At class during the third week, she tore the anterior cruciate ligament – or ACL – in her knee because her leg position wasn’t correct – the knee must be pointed in the same direction as the foot.

Although she wasn’t able to participate in class, she worked at home on drills, which include footwork, sword positions and jabbing against a wall. “Fencing keeps you alert and in the present moment,” LeCocq said.

The non-credit fencing class is open for registration with a fee of $60. Sessions will be held at the Mariposa County Park Amphitheater from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays. Classes begin on Feb. 4 and continue through April 29. Equipment will be available for use by 15 registered students. Call (209) 384-6224 or visit www.mercedcommunityservices.com for more information.

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