WOODSTOCK – Rick Blankenbaker stands in the middle of a high school cafeteria that doubles as a bingo hall on weekends and begins a familiar, two-step routine.
This is a teaching moment, one of the countless Blankenbaker has introduced in the eight years he has coached Marian Central’s fencing team.
It would seem safe to assume that the craft romanticized by books and movies is all about the weapon. The swashbuckling nature of the sport is why most of the students join one of the Midwest’s few high school programs of its kind in the first place.
Even before Blankenbaker will hand his new pupil a foil, though, he begins with the basics of how the diminutive freshman he's working with should move his feet, laying the foundation for what will follow.
But along with the initial footsteps, forward to attack, back to retreat, Blankenbaker offers a bit of friendly but realistic advice.
“I always tell the kids to get used to getting beat,” Blankenbaker said. “They’re going to get their butt kicked – that’s just how it is.
“That’s how they learn.”
Out of the 20 students who make up Marian’s team, the majority are novices. It will be a good two years before they become proficient. In the meantime, they will take their lumps at any number of the nine meets the Hurricanes will travel anywhere between 90 minutes and 4 hours to as one of 11 schools that make up the Great Lakes Fencing Conference.
Marian has offered the sport for 12 years, joining schools from around Chicago, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. In that time, the team has been made up of athletes and nonathletes alike, but it's normally those who enter the program with a high level of competitiveness who are bothered most by the learning curve they must endure.
Despite the early struggles, there aren’t any quitters among Blankenbaker’s bunch. The co-ed team members all share a common love for fencing, helping sustain a unique athletic program funded between the $100 fees students pay at Marian to participate and profits made at the home meet Marian hosts each year.
“It’s very much a thinking sport,” Blankenbaker said. “So it attracts a different kind of kid than other sports.”
That’s where fencers like Kyle Dionela enter the picture.
Dionela, a senior, is among Marian’s most experienced foil athletes. He has earned two varsity letters in a sport he was drawn to because of its blend of athleticism and intellectualism. It’s just one of the host of school activities he participates in – including drama, debate and band and scholastic bowl.
But fencing easily is among his favorites.
Dionela wasn’t ever drawn to “ball sports” the way he was to fencing, which he characterizes as “physical chess.” At first, he scoffed at how difficult fencing could be, unaware of the sport's physical nature. And yet, for all of the energy typically exerted during a 3-minute bout, the sport hasn't gained a school-wide respect.
“[Other athletes] make fun of fencing actually – and I don’t know why,” Dionela said. “It’s three minutes of intense body movements. That’s not what you can get from basketball or football.”
But be forewarned. Ask any of Marian’s fencers – experienced or just beginning – and they’ll all say the same thing: It’s not as easy as it looks, making the earliest stages of fencing among the most vital.
Dionela remembers his first few bouts well. He can’t remember landing any more than one touch – contact made to an opponent’s torso with the tip of the foil – in his opening tournament as a sophomore. But the early disappointments he characterizes as “horrible” only made Dionela work harder.
Two years later, he's still working.
“I wanted to beat the people who beat me pretty badly, so that really pushed me to improve myself," he said. "[The bouts] are still as frustrating and thought-provoking as they were when I started. I don't think I'm amazing, and even though I can usually win a bout, I don't think I can beat anyone that easily."
Each meet is broken into male and female competitions and then divided again by weapon. But after that, fencers aren’t ranked until they’ve gone through pool competition, often forcing someone new to the sport to fence against a senior with four years experience.
For most of Marian’s competitors, the wait is worth their time.
Sophomore Samantha Mrozek discovered fencing as a child through books her father used to read to her. Like most of her teammates, Mrozek was intrigued by the fact fencing offered something different than other sports. In the year she has spent learning the fundamentals of the sports, Mrozek has seen her interest only deepen as she learns.
Much of one's improvement comes from not only honing offensive skills, but from also defending opponent’s attempts to make contact. Over time, fencers learn to think as they go, anticipating not only where their next move will take them, but what their opponent will do to stop it.
“As soon as you get the hang of it, you have it,” she said. “After that, it’s not as confusing as it looks.”
Overcoming initial bouts of fear is part of the process. Although serious injuries – outside of ankle sprains from sudden lunges – rarely occur, Mrozek said she had to get used to her opponents’ foil making contact.
That’s where the patience comes in for Blankenbaker, who has had as many as 40 students on his roster. While many of his students will limit their fencing experience to only the bouts they’ll travel to during Marian’s season, some will strive to learn more.
More experienced fencers will extend their workouts to summer camps and club fencing – both of which make for better competitive experiences during their high school careers. But over time, Blankenbaker sees his students develop a love for the sport like he has over the year, making the experience worth it – not only for them, but for him as well.
“It’s neat because [fencing] is new to everyone, and so it’s different to see a kid excel than it is with different sports when they’ve been good at it since middle school,” Blankenbaker said. “But with this, everyone starts on equal ground.”