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Off The Fence – En Garde! Fencing Is No Longer The Forgotten Sport | By Nathan Walls

High above downtown streets, masked competitors, garbed all in white, lunged toward one another, sabers in hand. Their quick jabs honed balance and speed.

Fencing, the sport long associated with Ivy League colleges and former Soviet Bloc countries, has found a firm foothold in Fayetteville. The sport has seen a surge in popularity since the Summer Olympics when American fencers took home six medals. Ten years ago, the United States Fencing Association claimed 13,231 members. In 2008, the association had 22,091 members.

“Fencing in North Carolina just shot up right after the Olympics,” said Gerhard Guevarra, owner and head coach at All-American Fencing Academy downtown. “We’ve got a great U.S. team that’s been doing so much better than any team we’ve had in the past, so they’ve been getting the limelight.”

That team included Becca Ward. Last summer, Ward won bronze in Beijing – now she is a freshman at Duke University. Even Fayetteville had a brush with Olympic fencing fame. Olympic athlete and Polish fencer Aleksandra Socha taught classes at The Fayetteville Academy and All-American Fencing Academy. She also happens to be the wife of a Fort Bragg soldier.

“She intended to stay here a little bit longer,” Guevarra said, “but the Polish team was so close to getting a medal in the 2008 Olympics. She thought she was going to retire and start coaching, but the Polish team convinced her to try one more time. She is now back in camps and training in Poland for the 2012 Olympics.”

But All-American has kept on rolling, hosting tournaments that attract fencers from all over the state. On recent back-to-back weekends, fencers were placed in brackets and advanced by single elimination. Referees kept score as the athletes whittled their opponents until there was one winner in each category.

Paul Hovey is a senior at Reid Ross Classical School and one of All-American’s top students. He has competed in the Junior Olympics and the North American Cup. When he starts college in the fall, Paul hopes to make the fencing team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has studied fencing since 2001, when the academy first got its start as the Cumberland County Fencing Club.

“It just seemed like an interesting sport,” he said.

“Sword-fighting, to an 11-year-old boy, sounds kind of fun.”

Paul was one of Guevarra’s first students. The school has since flourished from humble beginnings at the Pine Forest Recreation Center to a stand-alone school on Donaldson Street in downtown Fayetteville. After starting with five students, the academy is now earning a reputation as one of the top fencing facilities in North Carolina, and the only one within easy driving distance of Fayetteville.

Here students learn to use the foil, epee and saber. The foil is comprised of a pommel, grip, guard, thumb pad and blade. The epee is similar to a foil but has a stiffer, heavier blade that is V-shaped in the cross-section and has a larger bell guard. Classes with the saber weapon are also taught. With the saber, it is possible to score with the edge of the blade, making movements and attacks very fast.

Fencing may have a reputation as a sport for the elite, but Guevarra works hard to keep costs low; he charges $10 to enter his tournaments. It may be one reason why a recent tournament drew students from Raleigh and Wilmington, where the Cape Fear Fencing Association has also seen a boost in attendance.

Justin Jacobs drove down from Raleigh and took home an award in his division. “It is the most enjoyable, addictive thing I have ever done in my whole life!” he said.

But fencing isn’t just for boys.

Brianna Osinski, a junior at Terry Sanford High School, is one of several girls who study fencing at All-American. “We have about five girls here in class normally, but we do we have a lot more guys than girls,” she said. “We really use about the same kind of style.”

Paul Hovey said much has changed at the school since he arrived eight years ago. “When I started, we had no equipment and very little space,” he said, “so obviously now that we’re running a full academy with 30 something people, we’re always growing and we have more than enough equipment. That tells you how popular fencing is.”