En Garde!

by Claire Stuart

As a child, David Copeland was fascinated by the swordplay in Three Musketeers and the light sabers in Star Wars. He did not outgrow his enthusiasm. He has been fencing for about 20 years, first competitively, and for 15 years as a fencing teacher and coach.

He and his family live in Charles Town, a central location convenient for reaching his classes in Harpers Ferry, Frederick Md., and Berryville, Va. David serves as Head Coach for his Out Of Nowhere Fencing, and his wife Annette takes care of the paperwork. He reports that he usually has about 100 students, ranging in age from 9 to 72, divided among the three locations.

The Copelands stress that fencing is a mental as well as a physical activity. Says David, “Fencing requires quick reaction time. The mental aspect is different from anything else you do in life. You must be able to mentally process information faster than in any other activity. It’s chess at 200 miles an hour! That’s the best analogy I can give.”

Annette adds, “You are constantly learning, constantly engaging the mind. It’s great for kids with autism or Asperger’s because it forces them to focus. And there’s no team—a person is responsible for their own wins and losses. Kids come in shy and we see them develop comradery here. It improves math skills, too. And fencing usually attracts the top academic students.”

David explains that real fencing is not like the fencing we see in the movies, with swordsmen swinging from chandeliers. “We wish our opponents moved that slow!” he says. “When you are fencing, you are not out to entertain. You are out to win.”

All of the fencing is electric. Sensors in the fencer’s jacket and weapon are connected by wires to a scoring machine. A green light shows when a fencer is hit and a red when the opponent is hit. When a hit lands off the valid target area, there is a white light. David explains that it evolved this way about 50 years ago as a way to be fair and accurate. Previously, someone had to see what was happening. “Since electric fencing, speed has tripled,” he reports. “The timing between lights is less than three quarters of a second, and you have to respond in that time.”

There are three weapons used in modern fencing. The foil has a flexible, rectangular blade, similar to the light court sword that was used in training for duels. The valid target area is where the protective vest covers the back and front of the torso, but not the arms, head or legs. The epee is heavier than the foil and similar to the dueling sword. The entire body is the valid target. The saber is based on a cavalry sword, and the target is the body from the waist up.

People who know absolutely nothing about fencing can start with the beginner’s classes (for ages 9 through adult). The classes run 8 to 12 weeks, and beginners are not required to buy any gear except for a glove, offering an opportunity to see if fencing is for them before purchasing gear. Basic fencing equipment consists of a jacket, mask, glove and sword. Intermediate students buy one piece of gear each session.

For people who like to fence all the time, a fencing club is open five nights a week. Members pay one fee and can fence as many times as they wish. There are many competitions within a 200-mile radius, usually about three a month, David explains, and “It’s virtually impossible to compete going to practice only once a week. There are some high-level fencers in the area, and they do very well at state tournaments.”

David says some people are ready to compete in three months, although it usually takes closer to a year. He has seen some of his students go to the Summer Olympics and Junior Nationals.

“Fencing is not like other sports,” says Annette. “You can compete for the rest of your life. There are tournaments for veterans, for youth, for over-40s. And because it’s an indoor sport, it keeps people’s interest up because they can do it year round. And it is a sport that the entire family can participate in.”

Although 80 percent of fencers are male, Annette reports that the sport itself is actually gender-friendly. “If you are fast or can outsmart someone, you can win.”

Regardless of statistics, on this evening there were practically as many women fencing as men. Autumn Bergen, age 14, was practicing with David for a tournament.

Her mother, Lorri Bergen, declared, “He’s the best coach!” She went on to say that fencing was the best thing her daughter ever found. “Now she eats and sleeps it!”

Fencing is a safe sport, says David. “You are more likely to die playing a round of golf than from fencing! The commonest injuries are to knees and ankles because you are moving so fast. The first thing to learn is footwork. It’s the most intense game of tag you will ever play!”

For more information, visit the Out Of Nowhere Fencing’s web site: www.swordsmen101.com.