Ray Gordon still remembers the first time he got a good look at fencing even though it was many years ago.
A student at Dumbarton Middle School — then known as Dumbarton Junior High — Gordon watched with fascination as Johns Hopkins University brought some fencers in to give student a peek at what they do. It certainly caught the attention of Gordon.
“I had previously done other martial arts, and I saw the fencing and said, ‘I’ve got to try it,’” Gordon said.
Gordon took up the sport a few years later while a student at Vassar College. He competed for the school’s team all four years — the first three on the club level before it became a varsity squad — and never left it behind.
He now is president of the Chesapeake Fencing Club, which moved to Towson last fall after 25 years in the Homeland section of Baltimore City after Notre Dame of Maryland University purchased the Knights of Columbus hall where it had been based, said Gordon, who guides a club of 30-40 members, mostly children. The relocated club is at the corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road.
Those who venture to where the club does its teaching and training enter the facility in the back, away from Loch Raven Boulevard, and it’s easy to see the cars flying by as the fencers work on the various parts of their sport. Gordon said that most come in once a week and others are there twice a week or a little more and will also take part in tournaments, which the club holds usually once a month, with fencers joining from throughout the mid-Atlantic region and even as far north as New Jersey.
Kids who take up fencing are different from those who love to play the more common sports like football, basketball or basketball, Gordon said.
Fencers tend to be people more likely to be in the chess club, Gordon said, in other words in a more cerebral activity. Or, they often engage in theater or music.
Gordon himself works hard, juggling three jobs — driving a school bus, running the club and working as a fencing specialist at a Gilman School summer camp — but he loves to spread the word about the sport.
Most who were practicing and working out at the club on a recent Thursday night agreed that fencing is a niche sport which is growing in popularity.
Conner Rinehart, 14, a ninth-grader at Perry Hall High School who gave up lacrosse for fencing, does not regret the decision. Rinehart loved sword fighting, and that spurred his interest in fencing, which he took up five years ago.
“I just think it’s different,” he said. “People ask me what sports do you do, and you can say, ‘I do fencing.’ It’s not normal for people to hear that. It’s really interesting [and] people can learn about it and help it grow, too.”
USA Fencing, based in Colorado Springs, said the sport is definitely expanding. Bob Bodor, director of member services, said membership numbers have risen each of the past five years and will be approaching 40,000 by the end of the current fencing season, which runs from Aug. 1 to July 31.
Fencing has been an Olympic sport since 1896, and approximately 55 colleges have a team. Johns Hopkins coach Austin Young said that recent times have seen an influx of coaches from around the world who have focused on youth fencing, both in-house and travel teams.
“It is definitely growing, both in terms of numbers as well as strength,” Young said. “The United States is probably the strongest country in the world for under-20-age fencing.”
Miles Moon, 10, a fifth-grade student at Timonium Elementary School, began fencing two summers ago, when he tried it for a week in a camp at the McDonogh School. He fenced again this past summer and then asked his family if he could join a team; he ended up at the Chesapeake Fencing Club.
“I thought it sounded cool, like sword fighting,” Miles said. “You’re actually working with real swords because other sports it’s mostly with balls, like soccer or football or basketball.”
Those practicing at the Chesapeake Fencing Club on this night, about one hour after the Orioles won their Opening Day game, were not talking much about baseballs, bats and gloves. Instead, most were working on putting on all the equipment fencers use and then applying it.
There were masks, the foil (the long stick-like instrument), jacket, knickers and long socks, which are required to come up to the bottom of those knickers. Gordon said the serious fencers also often have fencing shoes, which do not come in wide widths.
Those working out that night were doing various actions, trying to improve different skills. A number of the kids were practicing footwork, others were refining their use of the foil, while some were just trying to make sure all their equipment was properly placed. The coaches and kids often intermingled to try and help each other while parents sat off to the side watching or reading.
Jacob Gordon, the coach’s son, is one of the fencers who constantly concentrates on his sport. He began while in preschool at age 4 and now, at 18 and a senior at Eastern Tech, the cannot get enough of fencing.
“I love fencing, I love coaching, I love everything about the sport,” the younger Gordon said. “It is a huge part of my life.”
He smiles when talking about the sport; his voice quickens and he says that he hopes to attend a college that fields a team.
Division 1 university athletic programs are allowed to offer up to 4.5 fencing scholarships for men, with a full scholarship worth $14,270. Division 1 schools are allowed to give five scholarships to women, worth $15,162 each.
Scholarships aside, Jacob Gordon hopes to major in the esoteric field of aerospace engineering, and he plans to find a way to fence.
His father, meanwhile, will keep trying to help his club grow and teach the sport he loves. Gordon wants, though, to make sure that those who become fascinated with fencing, like he did as a kid, understand that it takes work to keep advancing in its world.
“What we do here is rely heavily on the kids’ motivation and self-discipline,” Gordon said. “The fencers we have that excel sort of already have that built in. They arrive here, [and] they are making themselves work hard.”