You might remember this portion of a famous monologue from Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride.”
“‘I was 11 years old. And when I was strong enough, I dedicated my life to the study of fencing. So the next time we meet, I will not fail.’”
Eleven-year-olds today might not see fencing as their first choice of self-defense—or of sport. The martial art feels at home in history and in the romanticism of a time bygone.
Yet fencing has a longstanding history in Baltimore, and its popularity among world-class athletes continues to grow. For young athletes especially, fencing offers a blend of the physical, artistic and strategic.
Care for a Game of Chess?
“One of the terms that has been used to describe fencing is physical chess because of the amount of strategy and tactics that are involved—the desire to outwit the opponent,” says Ray Gordon, coach and president of the Chesapeake Fencing Club in Towson.
Fencing involves two opponents entering a fencing strip and facing off in a match, or bout. They can choose from three weapons: épée (French for sword), saber or foil. Each weapon hits different targets on the body. To score a point with a touch, you must pay attention to distance and timing.
“Where fencing gets complicated is when you start trying to predict or elicit a move from your opponent,” Gordon says.
Students acquire focus by necessity, says Chris Amberger, who coaches the Épée Nomads out of Johns Hopkins University in a joint venture with the Homewood Fencing Club. Coaches don’t yell from the sidelines, and opponents must adjust their strategy in real time.
Ryan Xu began fencing at age 8 because he was drawn to the mental strategy. Now 15, he fences at Homewood.
Since the rules are complicated and different from common team sports that use balls, fencing allows participants to learn, develop and explore, says his mother Tianzhi Mao.
Gordon says that fencing is an activity people can do their whole lives and still have an infinite number of ways to adjust their game.
Fencing’s Roots in Baltimore
Fencing’s history in Baltimore is longer than in some European regions, Amberger says. Some notable fencing masters go as far back as 1812.
The 19th century brought a lively exchange of instruction between Baltimore and the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Gordon’s club began as an outgrowth of classes at the Y in the 1980s. Homewood—stemming from a club also prominent around that time—recently joined Amberger’s Nomads to keep the clubs alive.
Although fencing has gained popularity nationally—the U.S. Fencing Association grew about 30,000 members from 1989 to 2020, with Olympic athletes in all three weapons—and in some areas such as Boston and New Jersey, it still has a low profile in the Baltimore area.
Fencing is not taught in physical education classes in schools and doesn’t receive much advertising. Many youth competitors leave the clubs for college fencing programs, Gordon says.
That means small clubs—Chesapeake has about 50 youth and adults—find making rent difficult. Several clubs have closed since 2020.
But Amberger has found some youth fencers are returning as adults, and young athletes are finding fencing one way or another.
“We get parents who say, ‘My kid came and told me they wanted to fence, and I have no idea how they came up with that idea,’” Gordon says.
For some, it could be a family connection. Gordon has a grandfather, daughter and grandson from the same family in his club. Others might have seen it at the Olympics or in pop culture.
“‘The Princess Bride’ probably was a major factor in the early ’90s,” Amberger says.
Creativity, Strategy and Athleticism
Others who stumble upon the niche sport might be drawn in from a range of interests. In addition to the mental aspect, fencing also requires physical skill as a martial art and caters to those who thrive in individual sports.
Mao says that children who may be frustrated participating in team sports can feel team support in fencing.
“Fencing is a great choice for self-development,” Gordon says. It also has an artistic element. “In some ways, it’s akin to dance,” he says. “You have to have rhythm.”
One misconception is that fencing is unsafe, he adds. It’s not a contact sport, and the protective gear covers all parts of the body. Even the mask is subjected to a 14-kilogram punch test.
Although starter equipment generally runs between $130 and $200, clubs such as Chesapeake provide it free of charge for their nine-week beginner course.
“What you learn in fencing goes beyond the strip,” Mao says. Fencing also teaches you about dealing with failures—how to get knocked down and get back up again.
“These things translate into life and help kids to be successful hen times are tough,” she says.