There are very few companies that can say they have gone on for one hundred years, but Leon Paul is one of them. When the company was founded by Barry Paul’s grandfather, Leon Paul, no one could have foreseen the changes that would come in the world of fencing. Yet here we are, ten decades later, looking towards the evolving future of fencing with the now iconic innovation of this company. The legacy of this fencing equipment manufacturer is now in the hands of Barry’s sons, Alex and Ben, but he continues to be a thought leader with pertinent opinions about the sport.
The details of making something as simple as a mask or a fencing bag are far more complex than most of us think about every day when we pick up these objects in a fencing club. Every piece requires refining and effort to make it function in our daily fencing lives. Barry Paul’s understanding of and insight into how these processes work now and have changed over the decades is fascinating for any fencer.
The world of fencing saw a drastic decline with the pandemic. All sports saw a huge decline, with the world being pushed into unknown territory and an unclear path to recovery.
With the cancellation of almost an entire fencing season and the forced shutdown of most fencing clubs, fencing went online and dormant for the better part of a year. There were times that it looked truly dire, and even the most optimistic of us wondered what things would look like when the world reopened.
We are now able to see some hint of what will happen with reopening, how and when fencing might recover. Below, you’ll find a series of charts that break down the membership numbers from USA Fencing, followed by an analysis of what those numbers mean. Keep in mind, this is just the beginning. Right now, we have numbers from January 2021, at the height of lockdown, and June 2021, when reopening started to take hold. The numbers are encouraging.
We talk so often about the things that fencing brings to us. It brings us physical fitness and mental sharpness. It helps us to grow and find personal fulfillment through overcoming challenges. It allows us to find the best version of ourselves. All of those things are wonderful, they’re great. But I would say the greatest gift that fencing gives us is friendship. Not just friendship, but the lifelong friendship that enriches our lives in ways that no one expected when we first stepped foot onto the strip and picked up a sword.
It’s not the medals we are after
This past weekend, we held our customary graduation party for our fencers who are ready to step out into the world. It’s become an important tradition for AFM that includes sharing memories, connecting our community, and sharing our excitement about the future.
Last year, COVID pushed us into a virtual celebration. We made the most of it, highlighting our graduates with an online party and driving by their houses with signs. It wasn’t the same, but then nothing was the same during the pandemic. This year, we were ecstatic to be able to hold our party in person!
What I didn’t expect, what I never thought about happening, was for our graduates from previous years to come to the party. It was truly joyful to see them. These young people of the Class 2021 had gone on to different, fantastic places – Brown, Columbia, MIT, Berkeley, UCLA, UCSD, Brandeis, and more. These were great fencers who had fantastic national achievements. They each brought something special to their training, and it was an enriching experience to have them back at AFM.
Surrounded by these wonderful people who are making their way in the world, they asked me for some wisdom. When I looked around at them, all I could see was the friendships they had forged through fencing and how those continued long after they left the club.
The thing is, they will forget that they were United States Champions or National Medalists. Those achievements are made up of long months of work, but they only flash for a moment. The medal is hung around your neck for a day or an evening. Family, friends, teammates, and coaches celebrate with you on social media and over festive meals. Then the next day comes and you go home, hanging up your medal or putting it in a drawer. We don’t celebrate our medals and our achievements every day, we keep on moving forward. The rank doesn’t make you shine, and even a wall full of certificates of national achievements don’t give you value.
The next day after that amazing competition and that walk up the podium you’re back to your routine. It’s like nothing happened, but something remains with you.
After the peak that is winning those big competitions, what remains with you are the connections. The friendships that are forged through shared experiences don’t ever go away. In fact, with time they only grow deeper and more meaningful. The glow of getting that final point in a championship match is fleeting, but the bonds of friendship are long-lasting.
Champions cannot just sit back on their laurels and wait around for something to come along. They have to continue to get up out of bed every day and do the hard training. They have to continue to do the diligent work that makes those medals. The medals aren’t what we’re really after – it’s something else we’re looking for. That’s why fencers have a hard time stepping away from the strip, and indeed why many of them never do. The medals are part of the journey, but they are not the destination.
It has been a long year of lockdowns, closings, and slow reopenings. What’s changed now is that we are in the bright sunshine of a new day and a new time! There is the golden opportunity to turn the page while still remembering the lessons of the book that we all just read together.
While no one could call the process of the last year easy, especially for families with kids, we can all agree that reopening is a joyful finale to the tribulations that we’ve worked through together. We made it through all of this with the support of each other, and we will keep on moving forward with that same kind of support.
Why fencing is important post-pandemic
The loss of in-person sports was tough on a lot of kids. Fencing provides a needed stress relief, emotional release, and physical outlet for kids.
Training through zoom and social distancing did indeed take us far! We are thankful that it dulled the loss and kept us going, but now that restrictions are lifting left and right and vaccinations are pushing case numbers down, we need to get back into the groove of what life can be like. The last year has been a fog that in many ways obscured the feeling of accomplishment and excitement that fencing brings.
For many fencers, this is a hobby and also an identity. “What do you do?” “I am a fencer.” It’s not like “I play soccer” or “I do gymnastics” – “I am a fencer.” Without the ability to go to clubs and compete, they did not feel themselves. We worked hard to keep that connection online and with training through masks and outside, but without competition and in-person connection, it could not be as it was.
Reconnecting with this identity is important for kids, and for adult fencers. For new fencers, this sport offers a place to reset and create a new post-pandemic identity. We get to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and learn more about who we can be.
The goal of fencing is to stab someone else with a sharp metal object. Our sport grew out of war and actual duels to the death, so it’s natural to assume that there is some danger involved and one of the opponents would die. How could there not be?
In the movies, sword fights often end with one person thrusting their opponent through the chest with a blade, a red trickle running from beneath the metal while the unlucky loser crumples to the ground and whispers a few words in hushed tones. It’s all incredibly dramatic when it plays out onscreen, and the tableau of that tragic death is so familiar that it’s almost comforting. The movies are not the real world, thankfully.
We do all enjoy the thrill of the sport that is inherent in holding a weapon towards another human being with a weapon and seeing who can best the other person. That adrenaline rush is a big draw for everyone, and there is a bracing sense of excitement.