Originally Published: February 27, 2018 6:06 a.m.
Blades poised at a slight angle, elbows raised, Mile High Middle School students Cian McKelvey and Nikolas Mercado answer the French call to action with the rattle of metal on metal as the two make the first offensive strike.
Back and forth, the thin, plastic-tipped foils swing and sway as the boys target the center of each other’s torso — covered in a thick, coarse, white-fitted jacket with a strap that passes through the legs.
Within a minute or two, Cian dodges a glance near his arm, only to have Nikolas score with a quick jab to Cian’s upper left torso. As soon as the foil tip bends, the referee – Mile High physical education teacher Ian Owens — tells the boys to disengage.
They raise their black, webbed metallic face masks and shake hands.
In the short bout, both boys said they mentally calculated where their opponent might aim, so as to lean or dart backward and avoid a score.
“I’m glad we have it,” Cian said of Owen’s introduction this year of fencing, a form of martial art.
Wesley Amos, a seventh grader, described the sport as “really fun” but “harder than I thought.”
Opponents may start with a strategy, but must quickly adjust as the interchange “goes where it goes,” Amos said.
Mile High, in Prescott, is the only middle school in Yavapai County to offer this sport as part of its physical education program.
Fencing is usually an upper-tier college or private-club sport.
Prescott Unified School District Superintendent Joe Howard said he sees Owen’s fencing class as a good example of faculty and administrators thinking outside the box, so “great things happen for kids.”
“Part of our vision is to create as many opportunities as we can for kids to help them find their niche, or passion” Howard said. “Athletics and arts, and other clubs, help kids have passion and that then puts into perspective why we are doing the academic thing.”
Owens, a 2015 Northern Arizona University graduate with a degree in physical education, said he discovered fencing when he was required to take some additional courses to round out his degree. When he signed up for fencing, he “fell in love,” he said, so he joined a foil fencing club.
At Mile High, to promote physical fitness through sports that students might not have experienced before, Owens won district permission to spend $4,000 of his budget to offer fencing to all seventh and eighth graders, male and female alike. All of the equipment meets official regulations.
Mile High Principal Mark Goligoski said Owen’s pitch was an “easy sell” because it is a unique sport that students of all abilities can learn as part of a lifetime fitness choice. Fencing is one of the sports that is helping eliminate the “stigma of what physical education used to be,” he said.
Foil fencing has been described as a physical version of a game of chess, with opponents required to think strategically, and creatively, so as to stay one to two steps ahead of their opponent, Owens described.
And fencing is one of the original Olympic sports.
Prior to the start of an afternoon class of just over 20 male students – he offers classes for female students in the mornings – Owens required the boys to perform calisthenics and stretch.
Once dressed in their fencing attire, they lined up with suitable elbow room. Owens then instructed them in basic fencing motions, including the lunge, in which the boys moved forward with foil extended. The foil is held by a dominant, gloved hand, with the hand opposite the foil raised palm up.
Owens also taught the boys a lesson in proper fencing etiquette: start with a bow and end with a handshake.
Though Owens said this is a sport that does not require any particular physical attributes, he is quick to point out, fencing is not easy to master.
“It is challenging,” he said.
Eighth grader Andrew Cashatt, one of Owen’s student assistants, said fencing is a thinking sport and requires patience and persistence. Each player needs to develop their reflexes to gain the finesse required to deflect the opponent’s foil, he said.
Owens said his goal is to “spark an interest in them to try something they wouldn’t have otherwise tried.”
The middle school years are the prime time to prod students to step away from their comfort zones, to meet anxiety with “anticipation and courage,” Owens concluded.
Follow Nanci Hutson on Twitter @HutsonNanci. Reach her at 928-445-3333 ext. 2041.