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July 27th, 2005 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

BY THE SWORD

In a quiet suburban sports factory, Oregon's fencers slash their way to international glory.

     
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KNIGHTS IN WHITES: The "physical chess" of Portland's fencing factory.
IMAGE: STEPHEN VOSS
Quick: The best sports team in Oregon right now is...?

While that's obviously a question with no single answer, but you might concede that a squad makes a good case if it boasts:

*a reigning Olympic champion,

*three-quarters of the Team USA slots in its sport,

*four top-20 finishers in the sport's most recent major international event,

*the three-time national coach of the year,

*three members of the collegiate national championship team,

*an international reputation that draws competitors from all over the world to its suburban retreat.

This sports factory isn't one of the Nike-bedecked summer hoops squads, or a soccer travel team stuffed with Mia Hamm prototypes. The Oregon Fencing Alliance, a 25-year-old, 100-member club dedicated to the fine art of sword fighting, is on a roll any team in any sport would envy.

OFA enjoyed a brief flurry of publicity last summer when member Mariel Zagunis won Olympic gold in women's sabre. Yet most of the time the organization enjoys its ascendency in relative obscurity-tucked into the Oregon Episcopal School's suburban sports complex, perfecting a sport few people know anything about.

But as archaic as the sport may seem-it is sword fighting, after all-fencing's time may just be at hand. For restless jock youth, soccer is so early '90s. Lacrosse? So last year. The sport folks at the club call "physical chess," though, is on the rise.

This summer, in part because of attention paid to Zagunis' gold medal, the OFA's beginners' classes, which it conducts at community centers run by various metro-area parks departments, are packed. "More parents are looking for things that are unique for their kids," says Cathy Zagunis, OFA program director and mother of the medallist. "There are a million soccer kids. This is a sport where if you're good, you distinguish yourself quickly."

And beyond the beginner level, the Oregon club is national-caliber good, suppling three of the four duelists on the U.S. women's sabre team. Its dominance lends the state a strange mystique in fencing circles. "I was at a World Cup event, and I could hear the Hungarians talking, wondering why all the Americans came from Oregon," Zagunis says.

On a recent afternoon visit, teenage fencers sprawled around on lunch break looked like average, all-American kids with their shaggy haircuts and lived-in athletic gear. The difference? Many of them also sported fencing jackets with "USA" stencilled on the back. Nor was a cosmopolitan spirit lacking: The four fencers of the Hong Kong women's national sabre team were in town for a few day's training, while the Germans had just left.

Ed Korfanty, the club's head coach, led a spirited warm-up, scores of fencers skipping and hopping around the high-ceilinged gym. Korfanty, a Polish ex-pat, also coaches the U.S. national women's sabre team (and is, himself, the nation's No. 2 sabre fighter over 50). Fencing includes two other disciplines, foil and epee, but the OFA offers training only in sabre fighting.

The slightly curved, edged sabre provides the sport's most piratical action. "It's also the fastest, most ballistic blade, with a lot more slashing," Zagunis says. "It's more exciting for the younger kids."

That action was on display when, at Korfanty's command, fencers paired off on the long, narrow strips that form the sport's boundary. The combat-lightning-quick exchanges of steel resulting in points when one fencer landed a clean shot to their opponent's electronically sensitized vest-was almost too fast to seem coherent to a neophyte viewer.

"In sabre, you attack immediately," says Charles Randall, one of the club's assistant coachs. "You're watching your footwork, your opponent's footwork. You're trying to get close. Your opponent doesn't want you to. If you get touched, you have 120 milliseconds to reply. In that time, you must decide if you're going to parry, lunge or what. Those that remain calm and controlled succeed."

The question, really, may be if there are enough athletes born with personalities built for the blade. "This is such an individual sport," Randall says. "Physicality helps, but it's not really the most important thing. It's a mental game. Fencers hang out together, but it's not a team sport. You're out there alone."


For information about Oregon Fencing Alliance camps, classes and events, see www.oregonfencing.com . For fencing classes offered by Portland Parks, see www.portlandparks.org .
 
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