JEFFERSON CITY- Joe Galbraith, 11, has been a fencing student for seven months.
Across the strip from him is 19-year-old Nick Bateman, who has been fencing since he was Joe’s age, and easily clears six feet tall. Joe does not appear intimidated as he advances, His upper half still bounces a little too much, but right now he’s focusing on Bateman’s body, which he knows is very fast.
In two quick movements Bateman tags him on the chest with the tip of his foil and a buzzer nearby on the floor sounds, indicating the hit. Yet, Joe does not lose heart and manages to get three hits on his larger opponent before Batement reaches 10. With a salute and handshake, the bout is over.
On Tuesday and Friday nights the clash of steel swords, or foils, can be heard ringing through the tennis courts of the Ellis YMCA in Jefferson City. Head instructor Brandon Smith has taught fencing in Missouri for eight years, and has been involved in the sport for nearly 40.
He says he’s seen students of every size and age, but they have never been limited by these factors. The difference in fencing compared to other one-on-one sports is the domination of quick thinking and strategy over brute strength. This has earned the sport the nickname “physical chess.”
The class always begins with stretches. Many of the movements Smith uses are reminiscent of the Tai Chi movements he teaches on Saturday morning. They are used for getting muscles ready as much as for focusing the mind. Mind-and-body coordination is essential in Smith’s style of fencing.
In his classes, Smith puts an emphasis on the necessity of learning good footwork before focusing on bladework.
“If you can move in and out really good, and you meet someone with equal bladework, you will win,” he says.
“If you are observant with a fast mind, then you can do well.”
Sportsmanship is emphisized in this “Gentleman’s sport,” the head instructor reminds his students. “On the strip, the director is God, you cannot argue with him.”
About an hour and a half into class, assistant instructor Nick Bateman begins to set up equipment for electronically scored fencing bouts. The equipment, foils rigged with buttons on their tips and connecting wire, count hits. The wire runs down the foil and off the back of the fencer to a metal box that takes in and lets out wire as the fencers move.
The information then is sent to a buzzer that goes off every time there is a hit. According to Fencing.net, the electronic scoring system has been used since the 1936 Olympic Games. The target is anywhere on the body from the top of the mask to the tip of the shoe. In a tournament, the first to reach 15 hits wins. During the class it is 10.
Hollie Burrows, 13, a student since early April, seems less eager to fence Bateman. “His hits are pretty hard,” she says from under the brim of a faded yellow baseball cap she must remove to put on her protective mask. Bateman tells her that if she’s worried about getting hit, she’s more likely to be scored on. She has to get beyond that in order to get a hit in herself.
“I’ve seen really small guys beat really big guys before,” Bateman says after his bout with Joe, “If you’re small, you have a smaller target, but big guys have a longer reach. It kind of evens out, so it’s experience that really counts.”
Smith remembers one bout some years ago in which he faced an 88-year-old fencing master on the strip. The elderly man’s foil shook arthritically before him, but when Smith went in for a lunge with his foil, the other man moved so quickly he didn’t know what happened. He felt the hit, but was shocked at the unexpected speed.
“He beat me, hands down,” Smith says, “It’s not unusual to see instructors over 70 still teaching.”
Age may detract from agility, but long experience can give back what age or size takes away.
Will Brandon Smith, 60, still be teaching in 20 years?
“I hope so,” he answers with a grin.