Academies of Fencing brings razor-sharp entertainment to Catonsville

Dax Mikow, a seventh-grader at Arbutus Middle School, tried different sports in elementary school but couldn’t find one that felt right.

Finally, about two years ago, his mother told him there was a fencing club in Catonsville that might be worth a shot. Dax came to the club and quickly fell in love with the sport.

“I wasn’t interested in any other sport,” he said. “Baseball didn’t work. I didn’t really like soccer. Football was just not my sort of thing. So I said why not try [fencing]?”

The move paid off for Dax, as it has for so many other members of the Academies of Fencing in Catonsville. The Academies has three groups: one for adults, one for boys and another for girls. The operation has been in existence in various forms for 57 years, with the last seven in Catonsville.

Kathy Oles-Martin is a board member of the Academies of Fencing, which combines the TriWeapon (boys), the Fencing Institute of America Baltimore (girls) and Salle Palasz (adults). Her uncle, the late Richard Oles, longtime fencing coach at Johns Hopkins University, started the club in Homewood, and the fencers would not let it disband after he died when he was hit by a snowplow in January 2011.

They found Catonsville to be a more central location and moved to Route 40. Oles-Martin said the Academies of Fencing has about 100-120 members currently and offers lessons for those at various levels, including beginner, intermediate, private and advanced competitive. The fencers employ three types of weapons: epee, foil and sabre.

“We’ll take you as far as you want to go,” Oles-Martin said. “These are the people that even if they play other sports, they’re not you’re typical sports people. They’re the intellectuals; they’re the engineers; they’re the people who are logical.”

BJ Swayne, who grew up in Catonsville, graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is the head coach of the school’s fencing club and and now runs the boys program at Academies of Fencing, agreed with Oles-Martin’s assessment. He began fencing when in college and has noticed a trend from his competitive and coaching days.

“Most of the kids we get are the kids who don’t enjoy team sports,” Swayne said. “Usually, they’re looking for an activity; their parents want them to be in some kind of sport. They decide they want to do this because it’s different. Running around with swords is kind of cool.”

Kieran Gauvey fits that mold. The 11-year-old lives in Baltimore but his family is moving to Catonsville next year. After trying several sports and not like really enjoying them, Kieran connected with fencing, often practicing several days a week for the past two years.

“He took to it immediately,” said his father, Ken Gauvey, who also began fencing at the same time. “It’s what he loves to do. It carries over to every other aspect of his life. He’s able to make better decisions since he’s done this.”

When talking about fencing, it’s easy to see the gleam in the younger Gauvey’s eye.

“I enjoy being able to participate in stuff … because I’m competitive,” he said with a smile. “I get to do something that I like. It’s fun, very fun.”

Kieran participated in a summer national championship competition two months ago in St. Louis and won a bout, but is hoping to do better next time. He was ranked first in Maryland in the Y10 division (10-and-under based on one’s age on Jan. 1 of the current year) and loves attending tournaments.

Fencing is basically a niche sport. It is not often seen television, even during the Olympics, where fencers have competed since 1896.

However, there’s no question that the sport is growing. Bob Bodor, director of member services for USA Fencing in Colorado Springs, Colo., said last week that the organization’s membership is pushing 40,000, which it hopes to surpass next year.

In addition, USA Fencing has 45 teams that compete in college fencing — mostly at the Division I and III levels — with about 90 colleges fielding clubs associated with the group, Bodor said. The United States also fared well at the 2016 Olympics, an event that has helped grow the sport.

“We are benefiting from a number of things,” Bodor said. “Safety continues to rule the day with parents. We don’t have concussion issues in fencing. We don’t have traumatic brain injuries. We have that on our side.”

Fencing also helps kids in other ways. The Academies of Fencing features several silver strips set on the floor on which the fencers practice and compete. They take part in small competitions, often once or twice a month, and bigger ones two or three times a year.

Dax Mikow will be visiting the Academies four or five times a week during school because, well, it makes him feel really good.

“It’s been amazing so far,” he said. “I really love this place. It’s an amazing gym where you can do basically anything. I just have infinite amounts of fun.”

Dax discovered that he can roll up his troubles and frustrations and make a lunge while fencing, simply letting everything go. He smiles while talking about it.

“It helps me relieve stress,” Dax said. “It’s interesting. I can just fence it all away. Everyone here is awesome and super nice. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get enough of it.”

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