“Is this a right- or left-side zipper?” an adorable Cindy Lou Who lookalike asks, while holding up a fencing jacket for Coach Spahr’s inspection.
At a Tuesday night meeting of the Cape Fear Fencing Association, I watch Coach Greg Spahr patiently show her how to determine whether it is left- or right-handed. Off she runs in search of a different jacket.
The association meets in the lower level of Tileston Gym. A hive of activity swirls about during the events. Fencers engage in bouts, others get suited up and make sure they are connected to the reels and score-keeping system. In the corner, a couple of parents read books.
I am here for two reasons: I am facing a fear and fulfilling a commitment. In January, I announced I would attend a fencing event as of my proposed Live Local resolutions for 2015. The Cape Fear Fencing Association has grown so dramatically in the last two decades that it seemed essential to look into this phenomenon in the Port City. In addition, I am terrified—absolutely terrified—of sharp pointed objects coming at me. (This seems to be a perfectly reasonable fear.) Consequently, my childhood hopes of discovering I was in fact the spiritual heir to Douglas Fairbanks and “The Man in Black” (Cary Elwes, not Johnny Cash) have been dashed. But a lot of this year has been about facing fears and getting along with life. Clearly, I managed to put this resolution off until the end. Yes, I admit, I was (am) scared.
But if ever there was someone to offer reassurance and calm guidance, it is Greg Spahr. He coolly gets through helping me suit up in the armory (and is even nice enough not to laugh when I am too fat to get into the first fencing jacket he hands me. That’s a gentleman).
Mask? Oh, yes! The don’t-let-anything-poke-your-eye-out mask?
Spahr leads me over to the far side of the gym where we will be out of everyone’s way—and takes me through the very basics of how to hold a blade, advance, retreat (my favorite), parry, and thrust. He is kind and patient, but it is clear that I am far from an ideal student.
Cindy Lou Who’s doppelganger materializes again with a new jacket and the same question. Spahr points out that it is a back zip jacket, and therefore not a left or right hand zip. He helps her get settled, checks that the jacket is ready for the electronic scoring system that connects through the reels hanging from the ceiling, and she scampers off to begin her first bout of the evening. I watch her with envy. It is hard to admit that someone who barely comes up to my waist line is clearly living my Errol Flynn-like daydreams.
Spahr got into fencing to fulfill a PE requirement in college; apparently, he fell in love with the sport. He joined the team. In graduate school for renaissance music, he assisted in coaching a fencing team. As happens in life, he accumulated knowledge and experience to become the person Cape Fear Fencing Association asked to relocate from Indiana to Wilmington to coach. (I should say that is a hyper-simplified version of events; visit www.capefearfencing.com to read more; it is impressive).
“We did a national search,” Herman Smith confirms.
If Spahr is the coach for CFFA, Herman is the father. Back in 1997, Herman and three fencing buddies rented the third floor of a downtown restaurant for their club.
“We decided this is getting kind of expensive—why don’t we offer classes?” he remembers. “We figured we’d use our personal gear. We got 17 people in the very first class!”
Clearly, fencing remains a source of great joy. He loves to do it and he loves to talk about it. “We loaded up our credit cards and bought enough gear to outfit 17 people,” he notes. “After that first class we had outgrown our space. We had too many people.”
They struck a deal with Don Lashley for a space, which is now Ironclad Brewery. That was fine as long as all their fencers were of age to go to the bar around the corner to answer the call of nature. A need for bathrooms accessible by people under the age of 21 led them to approach St. Mary’s church about using Tileston Gym. Herman had ties to the congregation and the space seemed ideal. That was in 2000; since, the relationship has flourished.
“You’d have to be at a college to have as many [fencing] strips as we do,” Herman notes with justifiable pride in his voice.
Though the club and classes had grown, Herman and the founders hit a plateau in their own development. “We decided it would really be nice to have someone to teach us to fence,” he continues. “So we brought Greg out.”
Today, CFFA runs a homeschool program, an afterschool program, and offers classes at Camp LeJunne, as well as oversees club practice and training. “We support the club at UNCW and provide all the gear for them,” Herman explains. “Greg teaches two classes there and we provide the gear for that. It is an association of fencers who are all volunteers, except for the coach, who is paid privately by the people who take lessons from him.”
It seems to work more than beautifully. Like watching good swordsmanship itself, it is poetry in motion. Most amazing is the sheer volume of people who enjoy themselves at a sport that few people realize flourishes here. Fencers regularly travel to compete regionally and some even nationally. Herman has competed nationally several times.
Given this vibrant fencing subculture right under our noses, I wonder what else we got wrong about fencing. Upon posing the question, Spahr disappears and comes back with a Xeroxed piece of paper. It is the Olympics ranking of danger and injuries in sports. Fencing is one of the lowest; soccer and snowboarding are at the top.
“Athletic directors at schools tell me all the time that it is so dangerous,” he states. “Well, the Olympics puts badminton and table tennis ahead of fencing in injuries.” He is almost gleeful.
Spahr points out that most injuries are not from swords breaking, but rather someone over-extending a flex or not paying attention to form. For kids it is not when participating in a bout, but when they forget proper safety procedure for holding a blade. Spahr points out that focus is a really important piece of fencing education with children (adults, too, let’s be honest). “And try to teach them to give back especially in the afterschool program,” he extends. “There’s only one of me.”
Consequently, Spahr tries to prepare them to step up and work with other kids who haven’t mastered the same skills. He wants them to assume leadership and responsibility, and develop their communication skills. And they start at a young age.
“Pretty much all the programs [start] about second grade—[ages] 7 to 8, sometimes a little younger, if the parents fence or older kids fence,” Spahr says. “Before they hit 8, swords are still a little bit heavy.”
I am trying to work up the nerve to take the six-week class. Anyone want to join? The next round will start on the first Tuesday in January—and last twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday for six weeks. It’s $50 for the class and $10 to be on CFFA’s insurance for the year. CFFA will provide all the equipment, and between Spahr and Herman, plenty of experience, enthusiasm and tender guidance is included.