They come to the Knights of Columbus Hall on Homeland Avenue, open the gray, steel doors and troop down the stairs into a long, narrow and relatively drab room. Overhead, pipes are exposed along the ceiling. The walls are pale yellow concrete blocks. The floor is plywood, smooth as fine leather from all the stocking- and tennis shoe-clad feet that have slid over its surface during years of fencing practices.
Though people still call Chesapeake Fencing Club coach Ray Gordon asking for fencing for their yards and not fencing lessons, and though Baltimore-area schools do not offer fencing as a sport, somehow interest blossoms and people come — girls and boys, parents with elementary school kids in tow, junior high and high school students who have developed a fascination with the sport, college competitors and adults — all come to this club, where Gordon shares his passion and teaches the proper way to parry an opponent's thrust.
It's a beautiful sport to watch, and almost everyone has seen it — in an old Errol Flynn movie, in "Star Wars," in "Pirates of the Caribbean" or some other Hollywood production. But reality, as is so often the case, is not in the movies.
"It's fun to watch battles in movies, "The Lord of the Rings," the "Zorro" thing," said Roland Park Country School freshman Annie Bailey, who discovered she liked the sport in fourth grade in Cambridge when her class was learning about medieval history. "But its not the way it is. In the movies it's more hectic, without boundaries. And they make it really dramatic.
"In reality, you have to practice a lot and you have to think about what you're doing. It's like chess at about one-thousandth the speed. It's hard in the beginning because you just want to go out and swing [the sword] all around."
The original goal of fencing was to kill the opponent. Neither Bailey nor the Chesapeake Club is out to do that, however.
"If it was still a duel to the death, I don't know if I'd still be here," said Gordon, a Park School graduate who went on to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and then came back here, where he has been fencing and teaching the sport for 30 years.
Now, blunt-tipped swords wired electronically are used to score points when one competitor's sword touches an opponent's body.
"It happens so fast," said Gordon, "sometimes you don't even know you've been touched."
The artistry of some of his students will be on display for 24 straight hours in the Liberty Christian School gymnasium in Owings Mills beginning at 9 tonight, when local and regional club fencers along with teams from Catonsville Community College, UMBC, St. Mary's and Johns Hopkins gather to fence all night in the CFC's 11th annual Fence-a-Thon.
The competition is open to the public. Funds raised through pledges and donations will benefit the Sisters Academy of Baltimore, a Catholic middle school for girls from families in need in Baltimore, and the CFC fencing program.
Two of Gordon's students, Joe Wight, a senior at Loch Raven, and Spencer Lopez, a senior at Bel Air, have a friendly rivalry and can't wait for the marathon.
"It's great fun," said Wight, one of just five Marylanders rated nationally in all three disciplines — foil, epee and sabre. Wight, who has been fencing for 10 years, got into the sport when his parents noticed how much he liked playing with a toy sword when he was 7.
"Every year I think, 'I'm never doing this [all nighter] again,' " he said. "When it gets to be 3 and 4 a.m., time slows down and you just want to go home. But you don't. You keep going."
Added Lopez, who is rated nationally in foil and sabre: "I love it because it brings the team together. Once you're there, you're pushing yourself to keep going. My highest number of bouts was just over 100 two years ago. Last year I did 50."
There have been years when the top award for most bouts was won with more than 100 bouts. Last year's top prize, however, went to UMBC's Megan Gabor, who completed 58. She'll be back to defend her crown.
The Fence-a-Thon was the idea of event coordinator Dan Collins, who has been coming to the Chesapeake Fencing Club since 1986, when he was a student at Calvert Hall. He came up with the idea for the marathon as a way to keep young members interested and to grow the sport.
"Families come, people who thought about fencing but never had a chance to see it come," he said. "There are door prizes, food and drink. If someone has nothing to do at 3 a.m., they should come on down because we'll be here."