The sport’s popularity shows that swordplay isn’t just for Zorro and The Three Musketeers.
Twice a week, 67-year-old Madelon Rosenfeld does battle with anyone willing to take her on.
“You just walk up to someone and say, “Want to fence?” she said. “I fence with men, women, kids, and two guys in their 80s.”
A Manhattan lawyer, Rosenfeld participates in bouts at the Fencers Club in Chelsea. She’s been fencing for 18 years. She’s a three-time national champion in her age group and has competed in Austria, Bulgaria, France, and Croatia.
She is so immersed in the sport that she takes “three subways, two cabs, and the Metro North” into Westchester every Saturday for two 20-minute private lessons with her fencing coach, whom she followed from New York City 15 years ago when he opened a club in Hawthorne.
Though fencing might conjure images of swashbuckling pirates, a trio of musketeers and Zorro, the clash of foils happens often in New York City. The city is a magnet for competitive fencers, and a Yelp search reveals at least six fencing clubs in Manhattan alone.
Daryl Homer, an Olympic Sabre fencer who won the silver medal in the 2016 Summer Games in Brazil, described fencing as “New York’s Olympic sport” because of “our high concentration of elite coaches, our athletes becoming more visible via media and popular culture, and [the] increasing number of … school programs, clubs, and nonprofit initiatives.”
Homer’s interest in fencing was sparked when he was just five years old, growing up in the Bronx with his single mom.
“I first learned about fencing by [seeing it] in a children’s dictionary,” he recalled. His fascination was further piqued after watching the sport in action in films like “Zorro” and “The Parent Trap.”
Homer’s mother agreed to enroll him in classes at the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a nonprofit fencing club for underserved youth. Eventually, Homer paired up with renowned local Olympic coach Yury Gelman, and fencing became more than just Homer’s passion; it became his career.
Homer went on to become the second-ever American competitor to win an Olympic medal in individual sabre fencing. The first was Peter Westbrook himself, who won the Olympic bronze in 1984. Though both Homer and Westbrook are black athletes in a sport widely associated with wealthy white people, Homer said it was a misconception that fencing is exclusionary.
“[At] my current club you’ll find people of all ages, socioeconomic classes, and races,” he said.
For many years, Homer trained at Gelman’s prestigious Manhattan Fencing Center, which opened in 2007. At that club, Olympic medalists like Homer rub elbows with children as young as five. (Gelman is a five-time Olympic fencing coach and was inducted into the U.S. Fencing Hall of Fame in 2010.)
The club’s executive director, Julia Gelman, noted that 70 percent of the Center’s students range between 8 and 13 years old, though she also sees regulars in their sixties.
“Fencing is known as physical chess,” she said. “Many parents and students [tell] us that fencing helps them do better in school or work. It helps [people] focus and make quick decisions.”
However, it can be an expensive sport for those who compete. The cost of travel, training camps, classes, and coaching add up, though Gelman noted, “We provide equipment for beginner students. Once a student is at the intermediate level, they purchase their own equipment.”
For Rosenfeld and others who love the sport, there’s nothing quite like it, and fencing’s benefits — both mental and physical — outweigh any financial hits.
“Fencing is meditative but it can also be anxiety-producing,” she said. “There is something thrilling about it.”
DARIEN — For a few hours every Sunday, the second floor of the Darien VFW building on Noroton Avenue is transformed into a studio for the Darien Fencing Club.
At a recent session, two pairs of crouching young fencers, dressed in face masks and chest protectors, squared up. The junior swordsmen shuffled forward and back strategically. Each waited with sword-arm outstretched for the opportunity to strike with a lunge of the blunted blade, before retreating to ward off the opponent’s counter attack.
The back-and-forth clinking of metal swords was overseen by Dima Chumak — a former Olympian and member of the Ukrainian National fencing team — who stooped his 6-foot-3 inch frame to illustrate matters of form and technique, or — as in one instance — console a student at the receiving end of a well-executed jab.
It was near the conclusion of seven-year-old Robert Evanchik’s first lesson when an older classmate sprang forward and, with a thrust of his weapon, connected with Evanchik’s chest protector. Evanchik, surprised by the suddenness of the strike, began to well up with tears. Chumak propelled into action and calmed the boy with defensive instruction and words of encouragement.
As a consequence of the pep-talk, those tears were short-lived.
Seemingly unfazed by the recent blow, Evanchik regrouped and squared with his much larger opponent, who met the first-timer in the middle of the combat area to begin again.
“Ready, fence,” the older boy declared.
Evanchik’s mother, Susan Kindle, who was observing the lesson, had heard about the fencing club from a friend of Robert’s.
“I didn’t know much about fencing,” said Kindle, who added that Evanchik participates in a lot of team sports. “It seems like a good one-on-one sport. It’s almost like a chess game.”
The strategic nature of fencing, Chumak explained, has to do with a need to control one’s footwork and one’s blade, as well as the distance from one’s opponent, in order to protect the body and set up offensive opportunities. A buzzer sounds and points are won when the compressed tip of a blade makes contact with an adversary’s padding.
According to Chumak and Jeffrey Binder, a New York attorney who opened the club a decade ago after his children showed a proclivity for the sport, interest in fencing is on the rise in America.
“For sure, it’s a very big increase in popularity, even since 10 years ago,” said Chumak, though the sport’s popularity in this country does not yet rival that in his native Ukraine. Some of that escalating interest, Chumak suggested, may have to do with parents realizing the value that a background in fencing adds to a young person’s college application.
“It’s very good for not just your arms, legs and brain,” Chumak explained. “A lot of good colleges have fencing.” Former students of his have gone on to compete at Columbia and Cornell. Binder’s daughter, Sylvie, a hopeful for the 2020 Olympics, was recently accepted to Columbia on a fencing scholarship.