A Classic Sport Gaining Thrust

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Event Spotlights Fencing’s Growing Appeal In U.S.
February 17, 2006
By JOHN ALTAVILLA, Courant Staff Writer

Like most ambitious high school students, Sara Peck enjoys being involved. So the North Haven High junior plays volleyball and lacrosse – and trumpet in the school band.

But unlike most of her peers, Peck is also drawn to fencing, whose steady evolution in the United States will be on display at the Connecticut Convention Center today through Monday at the 2006 Junior Olympics Fencing Championships.

“This is a great competition, very prestigious, unbelievably big,” said Henry Harutunian, Yale’s fencing coach. “This is as big as you can have [for the sport in Connecticut] for a few days.”

Peck is one of a growing legion of state high school students beginning to take seriously this elegant sport, with roots centuries old.

“I didn’t know anything about the sport until some of my friends decided they wanted to try out when we were sophomores,” said Peck, 16. “I decided to go along with them for fun and the social opportunity it presented, and it ended up being a good fit for me and I fell in love with it. I also play other team sports, but this was a really different experience.”

Peck will compete Monday in the cadet division of women’s foil, one of the six divisions in which about 2,000 qualifiers will be bracketed based on their sex, age and weapon – epee, foil or saber. Her teammate, sophomore Mike Rose, also qualified but will not be able to compete because of a class trip to Costa Rica.

“I was drawn to the fact that fencing is basically physical chess,” Peck said. “Just being athletic and strong isn’t necessarily enough for you to compete. You need strategy to go along with it. I don’t think there’s another sport like it. It’s completely individual, there’s no one else to rely on. It’s all about you dealing with your opponent and emotions during a bout.”

The concept of “physical chess” is what attracts most to a sport no longer restricted to the upper-class demographic.

Harutunian, Yale’s coach for more than 30 years, believes the sport’s allure lies in the subtleties of the mind best described in a favorite passage of his from Moliere: “The eyes which watch and warn, the brain which evaluates and decides, the hand which executes the decision must harmonize precision and speed to give real life to the sword.”

Jim Harris, Peck’s coach at North Haven, has watched the sport evolve since he began participating in high school in the 1990s.

“It’s grown exponentially over the last few years,” Harris said. “When I graduated from high school in 1996 there were seven high schools in Connecticut that fenced and one or two private clubs [that taught]. Today there are about 25 high school teams and the number of private clubs is exploding, including The Candlewood Club in Danbury, The IConn Fencing Club in Middletown [which Harris helped found] and the Farmington Valley Alliance [in Bloomfield]. A lot of kids are now able to compete year-round, which allows them to get the kind of specialized instruction to do well in tournaments like this.”

Harris estimates that 50 to 60 state fencers will compete this weekend. They had to qualify regionally. Competition will begin in pools of six or seven fencers in five-touch bouts. Then the fencers will be seeded, in three-period, 15-touch bouts that will yield champions.

The CIAC, governing body of high school sports in the state, does not conduct championships in fencing. On March 4, the Connecticut High School Fencing Association will hold the individual championships and team qualifiers, culminating in the team championships March 11.

Equally as significant for athletes such as Peck, the competition this weekend will attract a large number of college coaches, including Harutunian, who will watch current team members or potential recruits.

“When you think back 10 or 15 years ago, when there was virtually nothing going on” regarding world championships or Olympic medals for American fencers, “it’s very different,” Harutunian said. “It was impossible to predict what might happen. … But great European coaches are coming over, opening clubs, producing very talented competitors. They are doing a beautiful job. And on the high school level … the sport is spreading unbelievably fast.”

For Peck, the weekend promises to be a learning experience. Her comparative inexperience, Harris said, might expose her to some tough lessons.

“One of her primary goals this summer was to qualify for the Junior Olympics, and she did that,” Harris said. “But I’ve told her she’ll probably go there and get her butt kicked in ways she may not have thought were possible. But for her, the goal is to learn and she will.”