IOWA CITY– Two figures stand facing each other. They are 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 B.C. 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 to her facility a year ago, bringing her passion for fencing and teaching to the North 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, and with many trophies also on display, 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.” She points to how she was not an athlete growing up, but was able to become one through fencing, a discovery she described as “somewhat surprising.”
“It’s different every time you step on the strip.” While the sport can be challenging from an athletic standpoint, O’Donnell is quick to point out an individual can work as hard or not as they choose. “There’s something in fencing for any walk of life,” she said. Indeed, O’Donnell’s students range in age from five to past eighty. The octogenarian took up the sport on his 80th birthday. The lessons were 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 anybody can start at any age. Participants engage in the sport for recreation, competition and sometimes a bit of both.
“As a teacher, it’s fun to see their skills develop.” O’Donnell explained children involved in fencing often have an improved ability to focus, their concentration improves and they develop self-discipline in addition to the technical skills of the sport. In addition, mental training and relaxation techniques she shares with her trainees can be applied to all aspects of life. O’Donnell cited a “B” student who became an “A” student after joining the program.
“It’s just wonderful to see that, the focus and discipline are so very powerful in fencing,” she said.
Unlike some other activities, kids at the Iowa City Fencing Center “are here because they want to be here,” said O’Donnell Consequently, their enthusiasm is typically very high. One of her protégé’s exudes the very definition of enthusiasm for the sport.
Maggie Snider has been fencing for two years, and in that time, the 11-year old Solon girl has racked up three tournament wins. Snider won the US Fencing Association’s Y-10 Foil event at the “Rubber Ducky” youth tournament at the Iowa City Fencing Center on March 20, and followed that up with wins in both the Y-12 and Y-14 Girls Foil Events at the Regional Youth Circuit in Clive on Sept. 24 and 25.
O’Donnell praised her young charge, saying Snider “works hard and is very enthusiastic. She’s developing into a great young fencer and her efforts inspire the rest of our Junior Team to train hard.” O’Donnell added Snider especially rallies the troops in tough footwork sessions which build advancing and retreating skills.
“Most importantly, she remembers to have fun with the sport,” said O’Donnell.
Regarding the double-wins, O’Donnell said it was a great achievement for Snider.
“She just aged out of the youth-ten competitions. To win at not only her new age level, but also the next age level up is extraordinary.”
Snider really couldn’t say why she chose fencing, it just kind of happened.
“I really don’t know. I just wanted to find something unique, something special,” Snider said. She had a rudimentary knowledge of fencing when she took an introductory class, in O’Donnell’s basement before the Fencing Center was opened. “We were lucky to find her.”
“I like how it’s a unique sport,” Snider continued. “You have to strategize, it’s more of a strategizing sport.”
While the sport challenges her mind, it comes with a demanding schedule including physical training. Snider typically spends at least five hours per week in the Fencing Center, both in formal training and open fencing sessions, to hone her skills.
“I just really like it, so I keep at it.”
Snider added she thinks more people would get into fencing if they’d give it a shot. “I came in and it was like, this is pretty cool.”
“It’s fun, it’s challenging, and it’s exciting,” said O’Donnell, echoing Snider’s comments.
The Iowa City Fencing Center is located at 415 Highland Ave., Ste. 200 in Iowa City. For more information, call 319-338-7171 or go online to http://iowacityfencingcenter.com .