Poking fun
Four Corners Fencing Club takes up centuries-old sport

The Four Corners Fencing Club jumps into action last week at the American Legion. The club meets every Thursday evening at 6 p.m. and is constantly picking up new members. As many as 20 participants can be suited up and fencing at a given time./Photo by Brandon Mathis

by Brandon Mathis

On any Thursday night, a Durangoan can stroll into the American Legion Hall, pick up a sword, put on a mask and engage in a dual. Fencing, the sport of swordsmanship, is alive and well in Durango, and the Four Corners Fencing Club is rapidly amassing members.

“It’s hard to get new sports started here,” said Trish Grogan. Grogan’s daughter Angela, 14, recently caught the fencing bug and took them to a competition in Boston. “But people are interested, and we always have new members,” Grogan added.

Grogan started the club with Jennifer Thurston and Art Olson, both accomplished local fencers. “We’d just gathered up a few people and said let’s make a club out of it. There are a lot more fencers in Durango than you would expect,” said Thurston.

Thurston is a talented fencer and former champion competitor. She trained with the U.S. Olympic Pentathlon team in Houston before the facility relocated to Colorado Springs. The pentathlon, one of the longest running Olympic events, is comprised of five events: running, swimming, horseback riding, pistol shooting and fencing. The fencing component is especially intense for competitors because the bout, or dual, only lasts one minute, and ends with the first contact. “The program was run by a Hungarian coach who felt women had no place in pentathlon, so it was hard for me,” said Thurston. “It was a different approach to fencing, seeing how quickly you could be and respond.”

Modern fencing is actually a family of three fencing styles, each with its own kind of sword, or weapon, and each with its own rules of engagement. Most non-fencers are familiar with the foil, a light flexible precision sword for the intention of thrusting instead of cutting. With roots in late Roman military, it is believed that the foil gained favor in battle because it could be thrust to penetrate vital organs while the opponent raised an arm to deliver a blow. In competition, there is no contact below the waist, a kind of salute to the old days, and “right of way” is honored, in which the opponent thrusting his or her sword is protected by the rules and cannot be scored against.

The epee is a thrusting weapon, but is much heavier than the foil. Unlike foil fencing, in competition fencers can whack and double touch to score more points, and there is no right of way. The target area in epee fencing is the entire body, making it an aggressive style with fast action. The saber is a light sword for cutting and thrusting, and only targets the upper body, again paying homage to days of yore, when Italian and French cavalries engaged in fencing battles on horseback.

Everyone has his or her favorite weapon. “The foil is the most delicate of the three weapons,” said Nik Mazrotheris. “You’ve got to be very precise, or you’ll miss. The saber, you’ve got a point, but you can also cut. With the epee, everything goes.” Mazrotheris, 77, starting fencing for West Point. He now coaches foil with the club in Durango and said it’s a great crossover sport. “With any sport, and I’ve played a lot, fencing really develops your legs, your balance and poise for skiing,” Mazrotheris said.

The club is diverse in age and gender, and curious first timers often just drop in off the street to get a feel and find out what it’s all about. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, there’s no telling who will show up. “Your gender or your size don’t affect your performance,” said Angela Grogan. “Some people would say that being a girl or being small may be harder, but being small means you can get lower on the body.” Angela is trained in every style but takes to epee. According to Mazrotheris, anybody can fence. “With fencing, you can fence against men, women, tall people, short people,” he said. “When you’re fencing someone a different size than you, then you’ve got to modify your attacks and defenses a little.”

Mazrotheris particularly enjoys teaching newcomers to the sport. “It’s fun to watch people start off clumsy as hell and then improve and be able to get up there and play to win. I gave Alex a lot of lessons there, and now half the time he beats me,” said Mazrotheris

Alex Wallace, 18, is from Scotland and is hooked on the sport. He is returning to Scotland for college and hopes to join the fencing club there. “I really enjoy the tactical nature of it, trying to outwit your opponent,” he said. “It’s great fun.”

Wallace recently displayed his skills in a match with another young man. “It’s making my legs sore, all that lunging and stepping,” he said. The bout, while nothing more than practice, got exciting and both swordsmen were moving like it was a fight to the finish.

“It’s always fun to watch a friendly bout. Everybody is laughing,” said Grogan.

It’s easy to see that each fencer has his or her own style. The seasoned experts like Thurston and Mazrotheris are light and graceful on their feet, and even the neophytes develop a way about them with sword in hand. The sport has a romantic flavor to it because of its long history, and the rules are based on it, from cavalry-inspired target contact areas to honoring “right of way.” Even the match area, a 40-foot-by-40-inch strip, is to mimic narrow castle hallways, according to Grogan.

Eli Dickson has been meeting with the club for months, and admits his interest in fencing was based on playing as a kid. “I used to really like playing with wooden swords with my dad, so I guess that’s what attracted me to it,” he said.

“It takes a personality, said Mazrotheris. “It’s a good way to stay in shape and you can do it all your life.”

Shamus Thurston, 11, has his eye on a lofty fencing goal and says he wants to compete in the Olympics. “When I grow up, I want to be in pentathlon, and fencing is one of the sports,” he said. “And for the fun. Mostly, I like just poking people.

The Four Corner’s Fencing Club meets at the American Legion Hall, 878 E. Second Ave., every Thursday evening at 6 p.m. First time is free, and then it’s only $5 per visit for all the fencing you fancy.

 

 

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