Fencing club aims to preserve traditional side of sport

Sunday, August 1, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Columbia fencers Patrick Market, left, and John Konzal duel in a match on "Fight Night" on Thursday at a Jazzercise studio in Columbia. When two duelers hit at the same time, the fencer with the more extended arm is usually credited, and the fencer with the bent arm is faulted, as happened in this case.

COLUMBIA — Patrick Market and John Konzal stand facing each other, each sporting protective black masks and padded white vests. They are equipped with slender European swords called rapiers, and soon they are moving back and forth with calculated footwork, lunging at each other with their swords.

Both have common goals in mind – touch and do not be touched.

Fencing is the Western martial art of swordplay first popular in the 1800s in places like France and Italy. Then, duels often ended in blood and sometimes even death. But today, for Market and Konzal, touch and do not be touched has become the motto they focus on as part of Columbia Classical Fencing. The motto is written on patches worn by club members.

Patrick Morgan, the 38-year-old manager and head instructor of for the Columbia club, teaches classical fencing. He teaches a group of Mid-Missouri fencers twice per week at his studio, and he also hosts a Fight Night once per month where the group puts its training to use.

Classical fencers only attempt a hit when they feel they are safe from a counter attack. Even though a hit no longer necessitates blood, classical fencers still focus on defense rather than offense when dueling. Morgan says steps need to be taken to keep classical fencing alive in the face of the increasing popularity of sport fencing, which is the kind featured in the Olympics.

Abe Ott, one of Morgan’s students, believes electricity transformed fencing in a not-so-positive way. In sport fencing, the tips of swords send an electrical signal at the slightest impact, indicating a touch to judges. This is how points are tallied. Modern sport fencers use the tip's sensitivity to their advantage by doing whatever they possibly can to get quick hits.

“Sport fencing has become so centered around getting hits and scoring points. They have lost a lot of the finesse and strategy that classical fencers want to continue focusing on,” Ott said.

Morgan started the club hoping to prevent classical fencing from becoming obsolete and to share his enthusiasm for the sport with anyone that is interested.

“I want to be that link in the chain for my students,” said Morgan, who says he feels obligated to pass on what his first instructor taught him in 1997.

Morgan remembers seeing an advertisement in the Columbia Parks and Recreation catalog for a beginning fencing class taught by Patrick Peritore, one of his former MU political science professors. He jumped at the opportunity to try something new and unfamiliar.

“I really needed something to fill my time. Kickboxing was giving me week long headaches and was just getting too tiring,” Morgan said.

Morgan and Peritore quickly became friends, and Morgan began helping as an instructor when Peritore formed a new fencing club called the Columbia Fencing Academy. They struggled to find practice space, however, often holding classes anywhere from church gyms to Taekwondo facilities. 

But Morgan was able to hone his skills in classical fencing, which he often calls “physical chess” and says requires a process much like classical ballet.

“In fencing, you have your moves and you add to them incrementally ... you are always refining your moves,” he said.

Peritore and Morgan's relationship came to a sudden end when Peritore retired and relocated to Brazil. Luckily for Morgan, he stumbled across a Jazzercise studio in Columbia where he could rent space to hold classes twice per week.

Fencers that belong to Morgan’s club come from a variety of ages and backgrounds but all share his enthusiasm for preserving classical fencing. Older fencers in particular are drawn to classical fencing.

“Classical fencing is more about finesse and sport fencing is more about speed,” said Kevin Hulett, a 50-year-old Columbia resident. “And I’m not very fast.”

Hulett is one of about 12 regular fencers in the club. Morgan hopes to increase the number of students but also realizes that Mid-Missouri is not an ideal location for a classical fencing club.

“Most classical fencing takes place on the coasts in cities like Seattle, New York and Los Angeles,” he said. “The knowledge is so hard to find, which is why I think it’s important that I bring the knowledge from the coasts to my students.”

Last week, Morgan attended a week long classical fencing convention at Martinez Academy of Arms in New York City where got a crash course on the French small-sword, a popular weapon in the 18th century. Morgan will again act as the link in the chain when he brings back this newly acquired knowledge this week to his students in Columbia.

Morgan said he enjoys encouraging his students with new techniques.

“I love seeing that look of joy on their face when they learn something new. It makes me feel like I’m giving back,” he said. “I feel like I am perpetuating, and that’s the most rewarding part."

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