Sweat dribbles down my chest. The grand swashbuckling visions I had have vanished.
Catherine Zeta-Jones managed to look gorgeous and graceful while fencing in The Mask of Zorro, and she came to the sport with dance training similar to mine. But I guess I can't compare highly edited movie scenes, or weeks of one-on-one training, with this two-hour beginners' class I'm attending.
Organized by the Front Range Fencing Club, the "Ladies Only Experience" taught at School District 20's Discovery Canyon Campus is a one-time introduction for those like me who've never held a weapon, led by master fencer and 23-year instructor Kathryn Lewis-Salem.
A half-hour in, my arms ache from the constant up-in-the-air positions. An hour in, my lunges aren't quite as deep as the first few. And near the end, fully outfitted and masked, I'm beginning to smell like my friends who camp for days without a shower.
Sexy as fencing may seem in the movies (such as my personal favorite, The Princess Bride), it's mostly hot. As in, temperature hot. And hard. I hear a warm bath calling my name.
Class opens with stretching, then basic postures and footwork. As I glance around, I already feel at a disadvantage — all but one of the other women attending are moms of youth fencers, and they adapt faster to the lingo.
Lewis-Salem lines us up across the gymnasium and teaches us to advance and retreat, a slightly awkward process of one foot leading the other in forward and back motions. We learn to stay within the field of play, a relatively small 6-by-40-foot strip known as a piste. She works us through lunging, which extends a fencer's striking range (and also gives the right thigh an incredible, if lopsided, workout).
As she runs us through practicing our moves, Lewis-Salem sprinkles in bits of history. Fencing's been around for centuries, but changed from the classical duel of fighting until "first blood" to a game of skill with the invention of the foil (a light, blunt-tipped thrusting weapon) in the 18th century.
I learn later that it's one of only four sports to be included in every modern Olympic Games — for men at least. Women's Foil was added in 1924, and women's Épée (using a heavy, blunt-tipped thrusting weapon), which is Lewis-Salem's focus, in 1996. Women's Saber (using a light cutting and thrusting weapon) debuted in 2004, and Lewis-Salem credits much of fencing's recent growth to U.S. female Saber fencer Mariel Zagunis' gold win that year.
Collegiate fencing is big on the coasts, but in Colorado, the Air Force Academy claims the only team. (It happens to be coached by Lewis-Salem's husband, former Egyptian Olympian Abdel Salem.) Civilian opportunities for fencing mostly lie within clubs like Front Range, which is one of three locally. As a member club of the United States Fencing Association — whose national governing body is headquartered in Colorado Springs — it offers classes throughout the year for youths and adults, beginners through competitive levels.
Piste de Resistance
About an hour in, we finally get to what we've all been waiting for: donning our gear. It doesn't take long to realize that this suit isn't designed for comfort. As Lewis-Salem hands us our plastic chest protectors, some specifically designed with cups for larger breasts, she jokes, "This is no 18-hour bra."
The jacket is a bit of a puzzle to put on; it's a process of inserting an arm, then a leg, then Velcroing in the rest of you, and tightening a strap between your legs. I can feel my body warming beneath the thick white canvas — and then I see Lewis-Salem tuck herself into her jacket, made of black leather.
"Canvas is hot," she says, "and leather's even hotter, but when you're a trainer ..." We all nod, knowing she takes a lot more hits than we ever will.
Masks are next — someone comments that with them on we all look a bit like huge flies — and then the final touch, our foils.
The lightest and most flexible of fencing's weapons, the foil still provides a solid clashing noise when hit against another. After just a few minutes of learning the seven basic weapon positions, I can feel my right wrist going the way of my right thigh; tomorrow's going to be interesting. (Note: Epsom salts in a tub full of warm water saved my back and arms. My leg, however, took a full day to recover.)
"If you lose your concentration, you get hit," Lewis-Salem says, adding with a laugh, "[It's] a little negative reinforcement."
She's not kidding. When I'm finally paired up for my first bout, I feel like I've forgotten everything I've been taught over the past hour and a half. Within seconds, my opponent's first advance-lunge hits within the scoring range, but below my chest plate.
For her, it's a point. For me, it's a little pain and raw determination to not let that happen again — at least in the competitive half of my brain. That part is screaming at me to lift the foil in the air and conk her on the head with it.
The rational, and tired, half of my brain forces me to draw upon my training and deflect her attacks (aka parry) with my foil. Meanwhile, it wishes I wasn't being observed by my fellow participants, so I could just stick out my chest and let her get the two more points she needs to end this thing.
Though I do rev up some energy to attempt a few of my own attacks, in the end, this bout's in her favor. She scores with two more touches and wins, 3-0. We salute one another and shake hands — a grand historical gesture that reminds me that fencing is often called the art of swordsmanship.
I pick up very quickly that this sport is good for many things: strength, flexibility, speed. Lewis-Salem explains that kids in particular learn lots of physical skills, but that the mental component is just as important. Whether they take class once a week, or after school each day through a program like hers, the most growth often comes in self-confidence.
That, and, well, they just have fun with it, she adds.
"Where else do you get to hit people with weapons and not get in trouble?"