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Fencing: A civilized way to fight it out

French master teaches Austin students sport's finer points.

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com

I feel like I'm in a tunnel, looking through a tiny screen door, while a woman in white barrels across the room at me, sword drawn.

I resist the urge to flee, but it isn't easy.

Instead, I scuttle forward and take a few jabs at her with what looks like a 3-foot hot dog roasting skewer. Amused, she twirls her blade and stabs me soundly, making the little metal box to our side light up like a stadium scoreboard.

Foiled again!

Eric Mallet, head coach of the Austin Fencers Club, is teaching me the basics of epee, one of three forms of fencing. (The others are foil and saber.) A fencing master straight from Paris, he knows what he's doing, and advice rolls off his tongue in a thick French accent.

"En garde," he calls out, as I start another bout with that anonymous woman in white.

All over the gym at Red River Church, fencers are whaling away at each other in a civilized sort of way, bodies charging and blades clanging. Though the sport has roots in military fighting and duels, there's a sense of decorum to it.

The swashbuckling days are gone, and fencing today has a high-tech flair. Electric cords plug into a fencer's weapon, run down his or her sleeve, attach to a floor cord and connect to a box that lights up when the fencer scores a "touch."

The white garb is a nod to the days of yore, when duelists shed their jackets to reveal white shirts that easily showed blood stains. Fencers' moves are almost dancelike as they move up and down the "strip," the long narrow box where bouts are played.

Protective mesh face masks, long pants and padded jackets prevent accidental eye gougings or pierced lungs. And those blades? Duller than butter knives.

But that doesn't take the edge off the sport.

"It's really good when it comes to stress," says Leyla Mayorga, 16. "You can run into people with swords — it's the best thing ever!"

"It's really fun. You don't normally get to stab people in day-to-day life," says Margaret Renault-Varian, 16. "It challenges you in ways most sports don't."

Strategy weighs heavily, and it takes a fierce desire to beat your opponent to win, says BJ Smiley Goins, an assistant coach and former ballroom dancer who's been fencing for 20 years. Every fencer has a unique style, and the goal is to exploit your opponent's weakness.

"The learning curve is steep, but if you're patient and have fun with what you are able to do, you can get there," Smiley Goins says. Inequalities like height or age make little difference. "You can beat somebody younger and stronger; you just have to be smarter and have the discipline and training," she says.

Central Texas has a thriving fencing scene. Besides the Austin Fencers Club, there are fencing groups in Round Rock, Buda, San Marcos and at the University of Texas.

I was mesmerized when I walked into the church for a practice session. Fencers here range in age from 7 to 65. They're skinny, fat, tall, short, male and female. I watched for a long time as Mallet matched steps with one of his students.

"All right, try again," he called at one point. "There you go! Now let's do that about five times faster. ... Let's go, monsieur!"

When my turn came up, I spent nearly an hour just focusing on footwork.

Mallet, who coached the UT fencing team for a decade before leaving to develop club programs, had me place my feet shoulder width apart, at a 90-degree angle to one another. I flexed my knees and held my weapon at the ready.

Once I mastered the "garde" position, I learned to advance and retreat sideways, like a crab. Next I added cross-forward and cross-back steps and a little hop to my repertoire. Finally Mallet showed me how to lunge, extending my weapon arm toward my opponent with a blast of power.

"Be careful; your feet are going all over the place," he coached as I struggled to keep my balance. "Bend your knee, bend your knee! Push!"

I matched wits with a tennis ball for a few minutes, trying to pierce the ball as it dangled from a string in front of me.

"Think! Put tip and target together," Mallet said as I jabbed away. "It's a Jedi thing."

Then I suited up, donning the required chest protector, which looks like a white plastic bustier Madonna might wear, plus the thick padded fencing jacket, face mask and glove. Serious injuries are rare, but strained ankles and knees and quarter-sized bruises are common.

Before I began, Mallet reminded me there's no subjectivity in fencing. It's an individual sport, and one person wins, the other loses. That's a good balance to the overly coddled life some kids lead today.

"You can only blame yourself if you lose. Hopefully you will find answers," he said. "It takes months. You don't just grab a sword and fight."

With that, he set me loose.

Which brings me to where I am now.

I've faced two opponents. Over and over, I walked straight into their traps. They lured me forward, then deflected my attacks. Their blades drove straight home, while I panted under my mask. Within a few minutes, my jacket felt like a steamy, full-bodied oven mitt.

Only once did I score a single point.

"You've got to get vicious!," Mallet helpfully advises.

Next time, I'm eating red meat before I report for class. Or channeling Jack Sparrow.

En garde!

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994