How many adults would be willing to admit they were humiliated by a 13-year-old?
On Friday, Oct. 13, I visited the Virginia Academy of Fencing in Springfield, home of no fewer than two national champions under the age of 15. Impressed by the long line of award winners, surrounded by photos of smiling athletes with gold and silver medals around their necks, I was curious. What would it take to learn how to fence? If a 13-year-old can be a national champion, it can't be all that hard, right?
After suiting up in a pair of sweatpants, sneakers and glove, I was taught the basic lunging motions needed to approach an opponent from as far away as possible. The more distance between fencers, the more difficult it is to earn points against them.
I tried my hand with two of the three types of swords first, the epee and foil. Not too bad, I thought, it's a matter of leaning forward with your sword and not getting hit. No problem.
That, it turns out, was the easy part. Getting the hang of how to parry, different ways to deflect an oncoming sword, was a little trickier. Try putting a pencil in your right hand (or left, whichever is more comfortable), then turning your hand so the inside of your wrist is facing outward and your hand is at a right angle to the rest of your arm. Now imagine that with a sword — not comfortable or easy, until you get used to it.
Then I was introduced to Alexander "Sasha" Ryjik, who, at 13, is a two-time national champion in Men's Sabre competition.
SASHA PROMISED he'd move very slowly when I put my helmet on to try a sabre after learning some basic moves. I'd lunge forward to try to tap him with my sabre and just as quickly, there was a loud metallic "thunk" on my head — he got me first.
If that was taking it easy, I feel bad for his competition.
Combining quick lunges with sharp, fast snaps of his sabre, Sasha dances around the competition area like he's suspended from puppet strings, floating just above the ground, totally unencumbered by gravity.
Fencing, it turns out, is the type of sport where age and traditional athletic skill takes a backseat to mental quickness and the ability to adapt and read your opponent before he hits you on the head and giggles.
Inside the Virginia Academy of Fencing are long rows of chairs, some behind tables, where parents and other spectators can watch classes in progress.
Connie Schreiber has learned that fencing comes first, five or six days each week, and has made her peace with that.
Sitting in the front row of comfortable brown leather chairs, Schreiber points out the way two students are fencing, each hooked up to a black retractable cord in the back of their white protective gear. The cord, she explains, is hooked up to a sensor in each fencer's glove and sword and tabulates when a hit is made.
"They're usually here five or six days a week," she said of her children, A.C., 11, and Nadia Eldeib, 15, both of whom are practicing at the far end of the open room at the Virginia Academy of Fencing in Springfield.
Over the squeaking of rubber-soled shoes and the clinking of swords, Schreiber said that fencing has helped A.C. become more confident in the nearly two years since he started taking lessons. Inspired by her brother's transformation, older sister Nadia began over a year and a half ago; now both are nationally-ranked fencers, competing with other fencers their age across the country.
Schreiber was so impressed with their skill, combined with the hours and hours she spends at the school each week, that she began taking classes herself earlier this year.
"It's a great exercise," she said, laughing. "Plus, it teaches you how to focus on your opponent and yourself. It's almost a Zen moment because you can't think about anything else."
IN THE FEW months she's been taking classes, Schreiber said she's been able to see why her children enjoy it so much.
"In most sports, you can't start at my age," she said. "In fencing, you can."
Because the competition and classes are grouped by age and experience level, Schreiber would be pitted against other people with the same proficiency level.
Schreiber said fencing has been "a dream come true" for her two children.
"They finally get to go at each other with swords," she laughed.
Testing her own skills, Schreiber confessed that she challenged her daughter once and was quickly schooled in who the better swordswoman is in their family.
"She beat my pants off," she said.
The fencing bug was first implanted in A.C. when he was in third grade, when a fencing teacher visited his physical education class. He started taking lessons in April 2005 and recently won the gold medal in the National Fencing Championships in July, competing in the Youth-10 category for epée , one of the three types of fencing swords and styles. A.C. also took fifth place in the Y-12 category for epée and eighth place in the Y-10 foil competition.
"I really like the environment here, the teachers are really nice," said A.C., taking a break from his epée class on Friday, Oct. 13.
Of the three forms of fencing, A.C. said he likes epée better than foil or sabre fencing.
"I think it fits my personality better," he said. "Your whole body is a target, there isn't just one or two place you're trying to hit. You have to be very careful how you move."
A.C. said winning his most recent medal was a nice surprise.
"It's a great feeling, it's an accomplishment," he said.
Considered by many to be the fastest-paced of the three swords, sabre fencing is a bit more challenging to learn.
Unless, of course, the person holding the sword is Alexander "Sasha" Ryjik.
Sasha has won two national championships and has been the points winner three times in the past year, and is currently ranked seventh nationally in his age group for sabre fencing.
Not bad for a 13 year old.
"I don't remember a lot of what I learned in the past, just that my dad used to fence in Russia and qualified for the Olympics but that was the year Russia boycotted them," said Sasha. His parents first tried to encourage him to fence when he was 7, but he had no interest.
"I tried again when I was 9 and I've been competing ever since," Sasha said. "I think I was too young and immature before."
TO KEEP in top condition, Sasha has spent time going to various gyms and looking into other activities to help him improve his agility and speed, essential attributes for successful fencers who need to be quick on their feet and able to anticipate their opponent's next move. He worked with a trainer over the summer, but now that he's back in school and taking classes three nights a week, he doesn't have the extra time.
"It's nice to say I'm a national champion," Sasha said.
Although he's eligible for the Olympics, Sasha said he's not ready to try for the international titles just yet.
"Most of the Olympic fencers are older guys. I'm nowhere near ready, but that is my goal," Sasha said.
It is a goal that his father, Alexandre Ryjik, had himself, growing up in the Soviet Union.
Ryjik, who owns the Virginia Academy of Fencing, said he began fencing when he was 8 and qualified for the Olympics twice. He could not go either time, once because he was serving in the Russian Red Army, the other because the Russian team boycotted the Olympics in Los Angeles.
After three decades, Ryjik said he learns something new from every new student that comes into his class, which helps keep him interested in fencing.
"This sport definitely takes a lifetime to master," said Ryjik, speaking with a thick Russian accent. "This is a sport where you have to be mentally and physically agile."
Rykij said some people have compared fencing to a physical chess match.
"You need to be a great athlete to achieve in some sports, but in fencing, you need to be strong mentally," he said.