An Olympian fencer and a teacher join forces to train the athletes of tomorrow.
Advance! Lunge! Passé! Retreat! Lunge! Parry! As the duelists advance and retreat, they trade the upper hand throughout the bout, each move a step toward victory.
No, this is not a scene from The Princess Bride. This is what two men are working to teach the varsity fencing team at Democracy Prep Charter High School in the Bronx. One of them is Tim Morehouse, an Olympic silver medalist who runs Fencing in the Schools (FITS), a program dedicated to teaching the joy and discipline of fencing to young people. He and DonorsChoose.org teacher Rolando Lopez are ready to take a partnership that began in 2013 to the next level. Their intricate, major project to expand the program to 17 schools just got funded before the start of the new year with the help of Dick’s Sporting Goods and individual supporters of athletics.
“The kids love it!” Mr. Lopez tells us over the phone. “They’re knocking on my office door wondering when they can get the equipment.”
Once they have the equipment, Tim and Mr. Lopez will facilitate individualized training for 5,000 students across New York and New Jersey, often under the supervision of Olympian fencers like Daryl Homer and Dagmara Wozniak. The goal is to reach every student personally.
“On team sports, you might have a kid on the bench,” Tim says. “With fencing, every kid gets to really develop their own game.”
Given the intricacies of the sport, Tim and Mr. Lopez understand that the benefits for kids go beyond the game too, and that the sport is anything but simple, especially when it comes to teaching it to younger students. Mr. Lopez, who first discovered it in his college years, takes it very seriously. That way, he knows his students will do the same from the day he first introduces it to them.
“I took out all the equipment, the foils, the vests, and the mat, and I just had the kids touch it,” Mr. Lopez says, describing that first day. Then he walked them through history of fencing and what they were looking at before they ever stepped foot on a mat or held a foil against each other. He took them through all of the safety precautions and how to communicate them in the context of the sport. “En garde! Parry! They [need to] understand the language, so that when they communicate with someone else about fencing, they sound and feel educated and part of it.”
The methods have paid off. Mr. Lopez was named “Teacher of the Year” by Tim’s FITS program last year. That’s how the two met. With this new project, they hope to send their high school–aged varsity fencing team to an important tournament in January 2016—as well as teach broader lessons that students can carry with them throughout their lives.
Mr. Lopez tells us one of the biggest challenges is making it clear that the sport isn’t just, “Star Wars or sword-fighting or like pirate movies.” It requires real-world discipline, passion, and—above all—preparation.
“Like chess moves, everything is precise,” he says. “There is a goal to be achieved. I had to translate that and make sure that when the kids saw it, it came with a purpose, with a thought process.”
“There’s so much you can learn doing sports like fencing that you can’t learn behind a desk,” Tim says, and it speaks to a broader use for physical education that often isn’t paid enough attention—keeping an active student engaged in other aspects of their day beyond the gym or the mat.
Ultimately the stakes and the goals are similar, Mr. Lopez says. If a student has an important math test at the end of the week, that student has to study, and more often than not, come up with a plan for how to study. The same logic applies to fencing: “You can’t get ready for a match while waiting for the last second to come up with a plan. At that point you’ve already lost.”
And, let’s be real: Fencing is cool, and not just because it’s how Mark Hamill trained to be Luke Skywalker. In addition to the physical benefits—the coordination, the agility, the fitness that go hand-in-hand with training—there’s a self esteem any student can derive from practicing an individualized sport. Tim and Mr. Lopez have used it to drive students to do better in their classes and attend the colleges of their choice.
“Everything is self-motivated,” Mr. Lopez says. “One of the things I fell in love with is the idea that I can give these kids an opportunity to rise to the forefront and say ‘I’m important.’”
“It wasn’t ‘Let’s put on the vest, put on the mask, and swing swords around like we’ve got plastic lightsabers,’” Mr. Lopez says. “It doesn’t work that way.’”