Archive for Wednesday, June 29, 2005

On guard

Tonganoxie youth learning ropes of unique and demanding sport

June 29, 2005

Like many young boys did and still do, Stephen Woolf imitated sword fights by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

But now the 17-year-old gets to put those fantasy fights into reality.

For the past four months, Woolf has attended fencing classes every Tuesday and Thursday evening at the Congregation Beth Israel Abraham and Voliner synagogue in Overland Park.

Currently he is learning saber fencing, which, along with epee and foil, is one of the three forms of fencing. Saber fencers use an edged sword, or saber, to hit their opponents anywhere from the waist up.

Epee fencing is the closest form to the classical dueling fencing often seen in competitions. Fencers use an epee sword, which is a heavy, triangular-pointed blade attached to a large bell-like hand guard, to hit their opponents anywhere on their entire body.

Foil fencers use very thin swords that are flexible enough to bend when hitting an opponent. The blade has a blunted, or foiled tip, to prevent injury when a fencer gets stabbed. In foil fencing, only the torso is a valid target area.

A sport unlike others

Woolf has played the common sports of soccer and basketball, but fencing brings athletic ability to a higher level. Fencing requires more than just strength, Woolf said. It requires imagination.

Comparing the sport to chess, he said fencers have to out-think their opponents.

"You basically want to make them do something stupid," he said. "Try to trick them without saying anything or try to get them to make a big mistake and use that against them."

Fencers never want to lose their concentration unless they want to get whacked by a 34-inch blade, he said.

But it's this combination of mental and physical toughness that attracts Woolf to the sport.

His stamina, both mentally and physically, is put to the test during matches. His longest match, against more experienced students, lasted about 20 minutes. A match ends when a fencer earns 15 points. One hit equals one point.

Right now, he said he is better trained physically than mentally, but his mental toughness has continued to strengthen.

"My reflexes are changing a lot," he said.

Steve Woolf, Stephen's father, said fencing removes any public humiliation that could result from making a mistake in a team sport.

"You worry sometimes with the team sports that you might make a mistake and let somebody down," he said. "In this sport there's no letting anyone down. It's either you or nothing."

Big boys don't cry

Although the blade isn't sharp enough to slash someone, as can be the case in movies, all the padding that saber fencers have to wear from the waist up might not prevent bruises and minor paper-like cuts.

"It's more like a whip," Woolf said of the blade. Fencers can get minor cuts if the sword is whipped fast enough.

But the 5-foot-10-inch, 170-pound Woolf said it usually hurts only if his opponent wants to make it hurt.

He said he gets pegged pretty hard by more experienced students who are just "teaching him a lesson," such as bad posture or moving in the wrong direction.

"Telling me 'don't do that' sometimes just isn't good enough," he said.

Head injuries are nearly impossible, though, because the helmet is the toughest piece of protective clothing, he said. But to Woolf, the jacket is a different story.

"The jacket, on the other hand, is meant for protection, I think, because it doesn't do a very good job of it," he said, laughing. "It doesn't stop any pain. It'll stop you from getting bruised, but you still feel a lot through it."

During matches, fencers attach metallic-fiber chords to their jackets. The chords are hooked up to a machine that senses when the fencer has been hit. A fencer does not have to be hit very hard during a match because the chords are sensitive.

With fencing comes some cuts, bumps and bruises, but Woolf's parents weren't afraid of him learning fencing. They were just happy to see him be active, Woolf said.

No embarrassment here

Not many of his friends know he is taking fencing lessons, but if they did Woolf wouldn't be embarrassed.

"I'm proud to say that I know some martial arts," he said.

Besides, now he has the ability to point out common faux pas of Hollywood sword fights. Such as Star Wars, when a Jedi Knight does a little dance in front of his opponent before he draws his light saber.

"Just stab him," Woolf said, of the opponent watching the fancy, but useless movements.

He's never thought of encouraging his friends to learn fencing because it's different from football and wrestling. But he said there was a chance they would like it.

"They might like fencing if they like a mental and a physical challenge because you will get a workout," Woolf said.

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