Maryland Fencing Club is more than just playing with swords

For The Baltimore Sun
The Maryland Fencing Club wants you to encourage your children to play with swords.

The sound of clashing metal rings through the air in a former dance studio in Abingdon. Here, coach Greg Paye puts his students through their paces at the Maryland Fencing Club.

Drills include lunging and retreating maneuvers and hand-eye coordination tasks, such as tossing a ball to a partner with one hand while catching one in the other hand. Next they move on to sparring.

During practice bouts such as these, Jared Lohrmann, 14, often pairs off with Genesis Mora. 13 Although the two friends are close in age, they display sharply different approaches to fencing, with Jared more likely to make quick jabs while Genesis moves with more care and deliberation.

"They complement each other well," says Jared's mother, Amanda.

Paye, a certified United States Fencing Association coach who opened the Maryland Fencing Club in 2008, is a modern purveyor of an old activity that can trace its roots to Renaissance Europe, when swordplay was a form of military training. In 1896, fencing made its debut as an Olympic sport, complete with protective clothing, masks and blunt-tipped weapons. The object is to score points by making contact with a target area on an opponent's body.

Throughout the mixed class, boys and girls seem unfazed by the prospect of training together and competing with one another.

"I think we're used to it," says Genesis, "We're all here to have fun and to learn together."

When the class takes a short break, Christian Mora, brother of Genesis, and Jack Plumer, both 13, talk quietly as they make repairs to equipment.

Meanwhile, Jared stays in motion, running through some moves while chatting with classmate Natasha Sherinsky, 13.

"I quit karate because I had too much energy for my teachers," Jared says jokingly as he practices a salute with his saber.

He adds that in addition to proving a good outlet for his energy, fencing has helped him make friends and develop good sportsmanship. The others in the group concur.

Soft-spoken but self-assured, Jack says: "Coach Paye teaches us that you can compete with someone and still be friends."

Putting it a bit more dramatically, Natasha agrees. "We're not afraid of some scrapes and bruises. It's like — I don't want to hurt you, but I want this point!"

When Paye calls the class back to order, the students assemble quickly, all joking aside, and prepare for the next drill.

The Maryland Fencing Club teaches two styles of fencing —- epee and saber. Paye says the style of fencing favored by a participant can be a reflection of personality, with spontaneous students favoring the wide, flat saber, and "deep thinkers" preferring the heavier epee.

Genesis, a Fallston resident, is an epee fencer. For her, one attraction was the Venezuelan fencing team.

"My mom told me Venezuela had won the gold medal in the Olympics for fencing and suggested my brother and I give it a try."

Genesis' father is retired Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora, a native of Venezuela.

"The first thing everyone always asks us is which of the kids play baseball," Gisel Mora, Genesis' mother, says with a laugh. "And the answer is: None of them."

There are almost enough young Moras to make up their own team. Genesis is one of the Mora quintuplets, born in 2001. The siblings were 10 weeks premature, and none weighed more than 21/2 pounds.

"They had a lot of health challenges," Gisel Mora recalls. "But Genesis was the sickest. Even learning to walk was a challenge for her."

Believing regular physical activity was the key to overcoming such problems, she encouraged Genesis to try many sports over the years.

"None of them worked out for me," says Genesis. "I don't think I was interested enough. But I love fencing. It's really fun."

She adds that fencing has improved her coordination. That's a welcome change for a girl who once broke her toes going up stairs.

Paye points out that fencing is an NCAA sport with the potential for scholarships. More importantly, he tells students, "It will attract attention on your college application because it's not something admissions counselors see every day."

For Jack Plumer of Bel Air, an epee fencer, the appeal of the sport is psychological as well as physical.

"It's easy to get frustrated when you're in a bout if the other person starts to get ahead. But if you can keep your focus and stay calm, you might still be able to come back," he says. He's already learning to apply that sense of resolve to school and to life.

After five years of playing soccer, Jack also appreciates the individual aspect of fencing. "My soccer team lost a lot," he recalls. "Even if you personally play a good game, your team can still lose. In fencing, it's all on you. Which can be stressful, but it can also be rewarding."

His mother, Christine Plumer, is happier now, too.

"I think the fencing community as a whole has a camaraderie that was kind of lacking in soccer," she says.

Of Paye, she says, "He's a stickler for respect. It's good to have a coach who isn't just looking to win at any cost."

Jack is a big "Star Wars" fan, and the movie's light-saber battles first sparked his interest in fencing. In fact, a number of students at the Maryland Fencing Club reported being inspired by film and television. In some cases, that has even influenced which type of fencing they pursue.

Natasha Sherinsky, who lives in the town of Street, enjoys the theatrical aspect of fencing. She's performed in area shows, studied dance and even appeared on the cover of a national magazine. Her dream is to play Captain Jack Sparrow's daughter in a future "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie.

When asked why she thinks fencing seems to be so popular with kids her age, she answers, "Because you get to stab people!" More seriously, she adds: "It's a good way to get my energy out, and I like being able to compete against the boys."

Fencing's often seen as an expensive sport, but Amanda Lohrmann says that's not so.

"Jared did karate for seven years," she says. "There were a lot of costs for uniforms and lessons, plus fees every time he moved up to the next level."

She says the costs for fencing are similar to those for karate — possibly less. Other parents agree, pointing out that if their kids were in soccer or football, they'd spend the same amount of money for gear, travel costs and uniforms. Lesson packages at Maryland Fencing Club start at $80 per month, and no contract is required. Paye also offers a free trial lesson.

Maryland Fencing Club's minimum age for students is 8. However, there's no maximum. Of the 60 students at the club, about a quarter are adults.

Keith Quarles of Bel Air is in his 50s and has been taking lessons at the club for more than three years. Initially, his son was interested in fencing, and Quarles accompanied him to the club. When his son went away to college, Quarles missed the sport and decided to take lessons himself. Now he attends a class for teens and adults twice a week and takes a private lesson once a week.

"I watched my son do it, and it seemed like good discipline," he says. "It gives you a good mix of physical and mental exercise. I like that it keeps both your body and your mind active."

Another perk: Injuries from contact aren't common in fencing. Quarles says he's never been seriously hurt in a bout or practice.

"Fencers have to be covered from head to toe, and the jacket is made of Kevlar," he points out.

The biggest danger Quarles has faced in fencing is a bad case of tennis elbow, also called lateral epicondylitis.

"I developed it after about a year of practicing," he says. "But now I have a special épée [sword] with an ergonomic grip, and that seems to help."

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Maryland Fencing Club

3011 Emmorton Road, Abingdon
410-569-1452
marylandfencing.com

Lesson packages start at
$80 for beginners ages 8 to adult.

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