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Fencing — and Finding — Friends

Sunday, April 12, 2015
Norwich — As the Selectboard settled in for a meeting in the basement of Tracy Hall, a different sort of bout was underway upstairs, where members of the Upper Valley Fencing Club warmed up with a gleeful game of floor hockey. More and more people trickled in, until almost 20 fencers were ramming around the gym, plastic sticks in hand. By the time the orange tennis ball serving as a puck was scooped up and put away, the players appeared to be truly warm. Some, in fact, were dripping.

A workout, camaraderie, competition — people have all sorts of reasons for joining the club, which meets Monday and Wednesday evenings in the hall. Members range in age from 60-something to 10, although younger children sometime take part. Some are dabblers, while others compete on a local or regional level. The club “pretty routinely” sends fencers to the Junior Olympics, said member Keegan Harris.

Michael Balch belonged to the club in high school, and after graduating from the University of New Hampshire rejoined right away.

“It’s fun, sword fighting, stabbing your friends,” the Hanover resident joked.“It’s a good way to stay active. You make friends.”

Fencing is known for its emphasis on politeness — opponents salute each other before fights and are known to apologize and help one another up after accidental collisions. It’s also a complex sport with an intricate system of rules.

“They call the sport physical chess for a reason,” said Harris , a Hartford resident who coaches now and again for the University of Vermont.

Floor hockey is followed by drills. On a recent Wednesday, Harris had members line up on the long side of the gym to practice footwork, which is integral to each of the three weapons used in fencing — foil, saber and epee.

He frames the drills around foil, “the traditional teaching and learning weapon,” he said. Most of the club members “fence foil.”

When Harris backed up, the group approached; when he moved toward them, “advancing,” they retreated. Back and forth the line swayed, like an ocean wave.

“I want to hear no shuffling,” Harris said. “I want to hear a dim pitter-patter, like rain in the summertime.”

Obliging, they picked up their feet. “Good. It’s much better,” he said.

An independent organization, the club offers the twice-weekly fencing sessions through the Norwich Recreation Department. It’s part of the United States Fencing Association and hosts two tournaments a year . But competition isn’t the main goal. According to its website, the club aims to provide fencers “with people to fence and a place to learn, practice and enjoy their sport.” Members are expected to share their skills, and seasoned people help the newbies along.

Pollaidh Major, of Woodstock, joined last fall.

“They’re better equipped than my college team ever was,” said Major, who fenced at George Washington University. And she likes the vibe.

“It’s very congenial, and people are focused on helping each other learn,” she said.

After the drills, Harris handed the group over to Hannah Prescott. “They’re yours,” he told the middle school teacher, who led arm stretches, forward bends and spinal twists.

Prescott started fencing 18 months ago, soon after moving to the Upper Valley for work. She’s found a welcoming community in the club. That afternoon, she and a fellow member had gone out for gelato.

“People ask where you were if you missed a day,” Prescott said. “You just kind of get pulled in.”

The stretching is followed by more drills, with members divided into small groups. After that, more experienced fencers stick around for intermediate and advanced drills and actual bouts , complete with electronic scoring equipment.

Officially, practice ends at 8: 30 p.m., although diehards are known to stay later. As the clock pushed 8:45, energy in the room remained high, with fencers facing off against various opponents. But John Lunn decided to head out. The Newport resident was getting tired and didn’t want to reinforce any bad habits.

A 57-year-old flutemaker, fencing is the first sport he’s ever gotten into.

“I’ve always liked (it),” he said. “Everybody always says Errol Flynn. I loved Zorro.”

And a few years ago, after surviving cancer, he dove in. “Why wait?” he said.

Aimee Caruso can be reached at or 603-727-3210.

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