Feint. Attack. Parry. Attack.
Every move happens in the blink in the eye, as steel flashes against steel, sending a sharp ring through the air of the University of Idaho Physical Education Building (PEB).
“I’ve always loved swords. To me, they’re the noblest of weapons,” said Zachary Spence, president of the fencing club at UI. “Our mission is to provide an open venue where anyone can come and learn about the sport of Olympic fencing. We’ll take community members, we’ll take students, we’ll take faculty if any of them ever come by and actually want to do it.”
Spence, a senior at UI, said he fell in love with fencing during his senior year of high school, when his senior project teacher challenged him to come out of his shell. He said learning to fence had always been a dream of his, and with the help of his mother, he discovered the club at UI.
Originally from Deary, Idaho, Spence stuck with the club during all four years of his college career. He said when he became a junior, the opportunity to run for president presented itself.
“When there’s a job to be done, I’m typically one of those who’s willing to step up and get it done,” he said. “I’ve tended to fit a lot of leadership roles in life. Some of my favorite historical figures are leaders. Leadership is a thing I enjoy.”
Spence, now in his second term as president of the fencing club, said retaining membership has always been a struggle. To help attract a large variety of members, Spence said the club is technically defined as a social club, instead of a sport club. Because of this, both students and Moscow community members are welcome to join.
“The club over at (Washington State University), it’s a good club, but it’s only for WSU students,” Spence said. “We have had interactions with other clubs that recruit community members, and it’s been nice because it gives it a little more longevity than you do with college students, because let’s face it, we’re always on the move. Our goal, then, is to take people in and teach them how to fence.”
Because of the group’s status as club, Spence said the organization can sometimes fall by the wayside when it comes to finding space. He said university athletics and intramurals often take precedence over clubs on campus, making scheduling places to practice a constant struggle.
Bob Behal, one of the club’s two coaches, said membership directly correlates with the consistency of practices. Behal first joined the club as a community member in 1994. After taking a brief hiatus in 1997, he returned in 2002.
“By the time I first got involved, I’d been fencing for 18 years,” Behal said. “I came in as a member and sort of as a coach and then just kind of built up into a coach from that point on. When I came back in 2002, I was definitely coaching.”
When it came to the struggles of finding practice locations, Behal agreed with Spence, recalling a time last year when the club was forced to practice at a Catholic elementary school gymnasium because of the lack of room on UI’s campus.
Now, the club has a semi-permanent home in UI’s PEB, but practices have been pushed back to 4 p.m., a starting time Spence said hurts their recruitment opportunities. Spence said the club’s old starting time, 7 p.m., hit the sweet spot, giving community members enough time to get off work and UI students ample time to prepare after class.
Behal also noted the challenge of keeping members interested in the sport. He acknowledged that, for the most part, people want to fence based off what they have seen in movies or television, and don’t totally understand the amount of mental and physical exertion required to succeed.
“A lot of people, the phrase they use is ‘physical chess,’” Behal said. “I had great teachers when I first got started, but after a while you figure out it’s not so much the romance of it, it’s the intellectual challenge of it and the physical challenge of it.”
Behal said he began fencing in 1978 during his sophomore year at Texas Tech University and eventually became obsessed, averaging eight to 10 hours a week of practice while completing his undergraduate degree. Like most everyone, he said the older he got, the less he focused on honing his skills. He said it wasn’t until he discovered his love of coaching that he began to get back in the game.
“Coaching is the greatest thing in the world. Teaching is the greatest thing in the world. It doesn’t pay worth a damn, but it’s a lot of fun,” Behal said. “Teaching these guys, it’s great fun.”
Behal’s fellow coach, Duncan Palmatier, said he also started fencing at a young age in 1969 while growing up in Santa Monica, California. Palmatier said he aspired to be the greatest fencer in the world, which caused a lot of physical and emotional stress later in his career until finally, in 1978, he walked away from the sport. He eventually rekindled his interest 30 years later after deciding he would teach his two young sons.
“It’s certainly worth trying out. It takes time to become competitive. That causes a lot of people to fall away,” Palmatier said. “It becomes tedious to learn how to do the drills and manage it. Or, they’ll start fencing and find this is a much more difficult game than it appears at first glance. Learning how to do it to win will take a long time.”
Spence, Palmatier and Behal urged anyone remotely interested in fencing to give the club a try. Spence said new members can enjoy three free practices before paying a $50 fee for a semester of training, or $90 for an entire academic year.
“I love the fact that it’s one of those sports that’s easy to learn but so hard to master. There’s always something new to work on,” Spence said. “For some people, that would be frustrating, and I understand that. As someone who loves challenges and someone who is very stubborn, the idea that there is still another thing to go is something that helps keeping me going.”
Brandon Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org