Traditionally, fencing is a sport that has been niche for many reasons, not the least of which is that fencing clubs are not easy to come by. For people who live in rural America, fencing is often totally inaccessible because they don’t live close enough to a place to learn it.
For our sport, this is an incredibly important subject. We want more fencers so that we can have more competitors, and also because we love the sport and want to share it. It’s a shame that distance is such a barrier, but for those who live outside of urban areas, especially in rural America, it’s a huge issue. How many potentially amazing fencers are there out there who will never make it to the strip because there is not a club nearby?
For many fencers, this isn’t something that they even consider. They think about their own sport, what their ranking is, where their next competition will be, and in the times of the pandemic they are understandably concerned about their own training. However, this is still a subject that is worth considering. We want our sport to thrive, and so that means thinking globally. Sometimes the biggest opportunities are in the most unlikely places.
The upside of the zoom fencing
In the past, the extended distances between where fencing would have been prohibitive for someone to start fencing. Now, thanks to the pandemic, distance doesn’t carry the same weight that it once did. We can cross huge distances with the click of a button and the flicker of a screen. It’s a major opportunity for fencing, but only if we take the opportunity to use it.
Not long ago, I got a call from two siblings in North Dakota who were interested in fencing. I don’t know a lot about North Dakota, but I do know that these kids were excited to start fencing. Their mom was supportive, but she told me that the place that they live is very rural. She said that there was nothing close to them for fencing. She checked online and the closest fencing club was something like an eight hour drive, which obviously made it impossible, besides COVID being an issue. This mom was tenacious and determined, and when she found our online classes she reached out.
We developed a plan to help these kids get fencing. It starts with conducting lessons over zoom, the same lessons that our local students get when they aren’t able to come to the club. Online fencing lessons have come a long way in the last year out of necessity. It doesn’t matter if the student is close or far away, they can participate in the online lessons the same.
These rural students then add in online private lessons, which are a major support for any fencer but especially are helpful for online learning. Private online lessons let the coach see details of form and movement, which can then be refined. It’s pretty fantastic what we can achieve through the screen. Timing, strategy, footwork, and more can be learned through online private lessons. There is practice between and the measuring of progress. A mentor relationship with a coach, which is so very important for fencers, can happen effectively with online formats.
One of the important parts of this process are their being siblings, so they have a training partner. They can do drills together, they don’t have to be solo trying to figure this out. That’s real fencing because it is fencing with a partner, even if it’s not as good as what they would get in a club. It’s a start! They still get the feel of fencing another person. Coaches can watch these through zoom and guide them to making their fencing better. Safety is always something that we are conscious of as fencers when fencing against an opponent, but safety doesn’t get sacrificed with online lessons. Even for beginner fencers, safety can happen if we are careful and rigorous in our training.
Over zoom, instructors can give them instructions about what to do and how to improve, even through bouting. The coach can guide them, just the way they are guided in person during lessons and classes. It is an adjustment, but not for these fencers. Because this is what they know, they adapt and pick up on things quickly. A year ago we would have scoffed at the idea of online fencing lessons – they couldn’t possibly work as well as in person! Now we know that online fencing lessons are a viable option for learning to fence. Sure, in person lessons are still preferable for a variety of reasons, but online lessons get the job done.
Spreading the love of fencing
Everything has to start somewhere. Fencing has spread all over the world because someone went somewhere and got it started. Clubs don’t pop up fully formed – they grow gradually over time because of the passion of people who want them to work.
Who knows where this could all lead? Maybe two siblings in a rural area will find a joy in this sport and a passion for it. Maybe they’ll start out with online lessons and a couple of weapons. Then maybe they’ll buy some inexpensive scoring equipment and try out real bouting as they keep up those online lessons. They might progress and improve to the point that they want to compete, even if they have to travel to do it. Every story starts somewhere. All fencing clubs have a beginning. Maybe these siblings show their new sport to their friends and they get excited, starting a small collective of fencers at their school or in their community center. They might not have a coach living there, but they can still have a fencing coach who they work with online.
Even in a tiny town or in a rural area, there are going to be people with interest in our sport, they just don’t realize it because they’ve not been exposed to it. We have fencers out there who haven’t been discovered yet! In a way we are explorers who are forging our way out into the unknown, and alone the way we are finding treasure that we didn’t anticipate. People see fencing in movies and at the Olympic games and they want to join in. They look for ways to start fencing and traditionally they haven’t been there, but now they are!
Access equals opportunity. Our sport is not accessible in rural areas of the United States right now, but the pandemic could change that in a good way. Even as access to fencing in person has dwindled, access to great fencing training has not. Online lessons can be a gateway to our sport, and we can’t wait to see where it leads us. Innovation from our coaches on how to conduct training online is bringing us a higher level of opportunity than we thought possible. Pandemic restrictions are actually opening new doors to people who never thought they would have the opportunity to be fencers.
If you’re out there in rural America, or anywhere that you didn’t think you’d be able to have a chance to fence, know that you are welcome here. Welcome to the modern world of fencing.