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Fencing: Westminster class has locals feeling 'en garde'

Carroll County Times

The sound of swords clashing echoed throughout the gymnasium of Robert Moton Center on a rainy Friday night.

Fencers lunged toward each other, practicing various techniques during the weekly sabre fencing class offered through the Carroll County Department of Recreation and Parks. Instructor Ben Backe watched closely, offering advice and coaching to the five fencers in attendance.

Backe grew up fencing through this very same program.

He was introduced to the sport during his freshman year of high school. After playing sports like soccer, lacrosse, football, and basketball, Backe said none of them stuck out to him.

That is, until he found this one.

“I was always the kid swinging the stick around in the backyard,” Backe said. “One day my mom said, ‘Hey Ben, do you want to sign up for fencing class?’”

Backe has since found his passion and has been teaching a sabre fencing class for the better part of two years. What started with just one or two fencers has now grown to five consistent faces every week, Backe said.

“It’s just a huge honor for me to be able to teach new students and returning students,” he said. “It’s so much fun. Once you get to play with the sword and say, ‘Okay, you and I are going to fight now, and it’s going to be awesome.’ That’s something you don’t get every day.”

The class is taught four times throughout the year in eight-week sessions. Each class meets once a week on Friday nights from 7-9.

On a normal night, Backe said class starts out with about 15 minutes of footwork to warm up. The group then transitions to blade work. Backe pairs fencers together in drills focusing on both attack and defense.

Since last Friday was the final class of the current session, the group competed in a round-robin style tournament. Each bout lasted to five points, and winner of the tournament earned the challenge of facing off against Backe.

Sabre is one of the three primary weapons used in modern style Olympic fencing, along with epee and foil. Sabre is used as both and cutting and thrusting weapon, Backe explained.

A fencer can hit an opponent anywhere above the waist, excluding the hands, to earn a valid touch.

Backe has taught all three styles over the course of his fencing career but thoroughly enjoys sabre the most.

“I love sabre,” he said. “I’ve had experience teaching all three of them at another club and they’re all a blast. But sabre is, for me, quintessential on what I love about swordsmanship.”

“[Sabre] in my opinion, is a little easier to teach,” Backe added. “Because [epee and foil] are thrusting weapons … all of the attacks and defense are done with very minute changes of angle and position, where sabre I find is a little more straightforward to teach.”

Despite common misconceptions, Backe said the sport of fencing is very safe. Modern fencing blades have a flat tip and fencers wear a plethora of gear from the head down to protect themselves.

Laura Trauth and Terry Wynne of Westminster have participated in Backe’s class for close to two years. Both fenced growing up and Trauth saw an advertisement for the class while waiting to vote.

“I was looking through the Parks and Rec and I’m like, ‘They have fencing!” she said. “And it’s sabre, which I’ve never been able to try before.”

Both said they enjoy the camaraderie of the class and plan on attending the next session. The challenge and rigor also offer an alternative method to common exercises.

“You’re exercising without thinking about it,” Wynne said.

Added Trauth, with a laugh: “It’s always easier to get your exercise if it’s something fun.”

Backe currently works as a technical writer for an IT company during the day, but said he would love to eventually have fencing become his full-time job.

“I’m not there yet, but that’s the dream one day,” he said.

jschiller@baltsun.com

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