IOWA CITY — Two figures stand facing each other, clad in protective clothing, their faces protected by mesh. Weapons are drawn; an epée, a saber, or perhaps a foil. Deft movements and swift swordsmanship ensue as the pair battles to a resolution. But there is no violence, there is no bloodshed. The vanquished lives to duel again.
It’s a hobby, and it’s a sport.
Fencing is one of the civilized world’s oldest sports of skill with artistic depictions dating back to Egypt in the year 1190 BC. Today, a core group of 20-25 people of all ages and both genders keeps the sport alive as members of the Iowa City Fencing Center. Founder and Coach Judy O’Donnell opened the doors of the facility a year ago, bringing her passion for fencing and teaching to the Corridor.
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” O’Donnell said. Growing up in New York, she was frustrated with a profound lack of opportunities to fence. She picked a college based in no small measure on the presence of a fencing team and “…absolutely fell in love with it (fencing).”
O’Donnell spent one year training in Germany and has been a competitor in a number of international tournaments including World Cup Competition as well as the World University Games. Looking at a display case full of ribbons and medals, with many trophies nearby, she smiled and said, “It was a lot of fun.”
Fun is what attracts many of the club members, O’Donnell explained.
“It’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s exciting. It’s not only physically challenging but mentally as well.” O’Donnell said she was not an athlete growing up, but was able to become one through fencing.
From an athletic standpoint, though, O’Donnell is quick to point out an individual can work as hard– or not– as he chooses. “There’s something in fencing for any walk of life.” Indeed, O’Donnell’s students range in age from five years to past 80. The octogenarian took up the sport on his eightieth birthday, the lessons a birthday present from his wife.
Typically however, O’Donnell has more youngsters than adults in her program, but notes the adult population is growing as more people realize that anybody can start at any age. Participants engage in the sport for recreation, competition, sometimes a bit of both.
O’Donnell said children involved in fencing often improve their ability to focus, and they develop self-discipline in addition to the technical skills of the sport. She said the mental training and relaxation techniques can be applied to all aspects of life. O’Donnell cited a “B” student who became an “A” student after joining the program.
“Its just wonderful to see that, the focus and discipline are so very powerful in fencing.”
Adam Rains and Krystal Titus, both of North Liberty, joined eight other club members plus O’Donnell in competition at the United States Fencing Association’s National Championship, held in Reno, Nev. in July. Rains and Titus have been involved for over two years and say a mutual friend got them into it through the University of Iowa’s Fencing Club.
“I’ve always wanted to fence,” Rains said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about the sport; it’s not like what you see on TV and in the movies.” While the sport may not have quite the swashbuckling appearance Hollywood gives it, Rains is quick to note, “It’s still every bit as action-filled and intense.” He believes fencing would be more popular if only more people were exposed to it.
In Titus’ case, she came to watch Rains at his fencing classes, and was captivated immediately. Titus played softball, basketball and volleyball for the Women of Troy at Iowa City West, but unlike those sports, she began fencing in her 20s. Skill-wise, she said, the late start has not been a hindrance.
“I’m not behind those (fencers) who started as kids.”. Challenges for Titus include trying to master the techniques. “Its more athletic than most people think.” Aside from the physicality, Titus also enjoys the mental workouts, calling fencing “mental chess” as she has to constantly form a flexible plan to defeat her foe.
Rains bristles at the perception that fencing is not athletic. “Nothing annoys me more than peoples’ misconceptions it’s not athletic, or that it’s an expensive, rich-person’s sport, aristocratic.”
Training typically consists of an hour or two per day where the pair open fence, or duel each other. They also do a regimen of plyometric exercises designed to improve their ability to quickly change direction. Both said they have learned the same skill set as professional fencers; it’s just a matter of gaining proficiency and practicing enough to develop those skills.
“That’s why anybody can start at any age” Titus said.
“I enjoy everything about it” Rains said. “I like that it’s competitive. I love to win…and I hate to lose.”
The Iowa City Fencing Center is located at 415 Highland Avenue, Suite 200 in Iowa City. For more information, call (319) 338-7171 or go online to iowacityfencingcenter.com.