Henri Darricau stands between two uniform lines of elementary students, who face one another and anticipate their coach’s commands.
“Everybody, ready now. Face your opponent,” he said. “Put your masks on. … En garde! … Fence!”
Darricau, a middle-aged man with a hint of a French accent, is not a typical athletic instructor at Collegiate Academy. He and others are piloting a new after-school club that sets out to improve students’ cognitive abilities and coordination, all while cultivating a love for a sport typically reserved in this country for the elite.
Students begin their weekly lessons with a few warm-up exercises. They carefully practice footwork and then practice drills in which they hold gloves rather than sabers. And then the masks are donned.
“We teach offense and defense,” said Gregg Branbeltt, another volunteer coach who is also a member of the Fencing Academy of Denver, which runs the program. “It’s not swashbuckling, like you see in the movies.”
Indeed, extravagant swordplay ala “The Princess Bride” it is not. The students rehearse no acrobatics, and duels on the edge of a rocky cliff are conspicuously excluded from the program. Rather, the students are careful to show mutual respect and accept they have much to learn from their instructors and from one another.
“You’ve got to anticipate what (your opponent) does and take the appropriate defensive action,” Branbeltt said as he strapped on a jacket, preparing for several rounds of practice bouts with the students. “Seventy percent of this is mental.”
Such a claim has precipitated the sport’s unofficial rank as a sort of physical chess. People typically don’t have big advantages due to body structure, instructors said. And the program is open to boys and girls, though only one girl is currently in the club.
The benefit of focused concentration and enhanced mental dexterity is a big draw for parents, too.
“He has a tendency to spread himself thin when it comes to concentration,” said Rochelle Paulet, whose son, Steven, 11, is quickly becoming an adept fencer. Steven regularly shows up well before classes begin to prepare himself and query the instructors for advice. “A sport like this that (challenges) how to use his brain more than his body is helping him to channel that. … I think his competitive nature is coming out.”
An initial reaction, however, to the idea of giving swords to children is that such practice boarders on reckless endangerment. But such concerns are unnecessary, as virtually any experienced fencer would likely attest.
“It’s a very safe sport,” said coach Monica Strzalkowski, whose husband, Tom, is a head coach at the academy and a former Olympian. “The worst thing you can have happen is a sprained ankle.”
The metal tips at the ends of the sabers fold back on themselves, forming dull loops that are as likely to puncture human skin as polished spoons. Students wear mesh facemasks and protective jackets, each of which contain electronic sensors used to determine when valid hits occur for scoring. And potentially painful shots aimed below the waist are strictly prohibited.
Points are awarded in matches when a fencer touches an opponent’s head or torso with the tip or side of the saber’s blade. Competitors lunge and swipe, clanking blades when one parries, or defensively deflects the aggressor’s blade.
“This is the fifth week, and you can tell a huge difference in these kids’ self-esteem,” Branbeltt said as he observed students practicing with one another.
“Man, this is so hard,” one student said during a bout.
“What’s the point of this? You keep retreating from me,” another joked with his opponent.
The academy is working to form a local school league, through which different clubs could have occasional competitions. Several schools, including Collegiate Academy, are open to the idea and are waiting for others to join.
Another added benefit, academically speaking, is the opportunity for college scholarships, should students take to the sport and develop their skills throughout high school, something the academy openly stresses. And a summer camp is available to introduce kids ages 8 and up to the world of fencing.
“We want to start at the age of 8,” Strzalkowski said. “Younger ones are not patient enough. It’s a repetitive sport. … You have to have really good footwork before you can even put your gear on.”
Fencing Academy of Denver 7676 S. Continental Divide Road Littleton, 80127 720-334-3578 www.fencingacademyofdenver.com
A summer camp will be held beginning Aug. 3 and is open to kids ages 8 to 18. Classes take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and the cost of admission is $300 for residents and $330 for nonresidents.