Do you have the legs to fight en garde?

The Globe and Mail

Instructor Katya Belkina, left, spars with one of her students during My Fencing Club’s practice at the Community of Christ church in Toronto on Tuesday, July 3, 2012. (Matthew Sherwood for The Globe and Mail)

Want to be an Olympian? My Summer Games is a column that chases glory at the rec level.

Having been a competitive athlete throughout university, I’ve long been an enormous fan of the Olympics. (Especially all those obscure niche sports like snowboard cross.) I’m a pretty active person, playing hockey a few times a week and doing spin classes daily. With the London Games approaching, I wondered what it might be like to try some of these events. Could I get a decent workout?

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My first choice: fencing.

I envisioned myself gracefully wielding a blade against my opponent as well as any Jedi. How hard could it be? Little did I know that I was in for a major lesson in precision, stamina and technique.

After checking out the Canadian Fencing Federation website, a good resource that lists the fencing clubs across the country, I turned to Katya Belkina, a former Canadian national fencing champion who runs My Fencing Club, a Toronto school that offers classes and camps to both adults and children. She assured me that people of all ages, shapes and sizes take up the sport, saying I might not even notice that I’m “exercising, sweating and training hard, as the mind is always engaged.”

I arrived (still with swashbuckling thoughts) at the school, located in – of all unlikely places – a bright gymnasium in a church basement.

After a brief overview of how the point system works, the uniform and the equipment involved with each of the sport’s three disciplines, we began. As this was an introductory session, we would be focusing on the “foil” discipline (the easiest of the three), using the lightest and most flexible blade. But first I had to master the footwork.

We started with the “ en garde” stance – basically a typical athletic stance (feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent), but with your dominant foot pointing forward and your rear foot turned out 90 degrees. My thighs immediately started to burn. And as soon as I started to move forward and back in classic fencing movement, I broke into a sweat, even though I was only in a T-shirt and shorts (the fancy uniforms are for more advanced students). Maintaining proper posture while in motion is a lot harder than it looks.

Next came the lunges. Leading with your dominant arm, you lunge toward your opponent to attack and pop back up to your en garde stance. (My quadriceps were on fire!)

My body was getting fatigued and I hadn’t even picked up a weapon yet. Ms. Belkina explained that some purists won’t let their students handle a foil until they’ve mastered the footwork – but this causes students (especially kids) to lose interest quickly. I agreed. After all – what was I there for? I wanted to wield a blade.

Once given our plastic foils (reminiscent of safety scissors), we practised with blades “engaged” (touching), moving forward and backward (still in that draining en garde stance) with partners. I was taught how to hold the foil in line with my body and how to strike only with my arm as opposed to engaging my shoulder and torso. Blocking your opponent’s blade and circling yours around for a hit is achieved by a subtle roll of the wrist rather than a whole body motion.

I found this went against everything my body wanted to do. I had to fight to maintain the technique. It was mentally and physically exhausting.

Next was precision blade work. I was positioned in front of an electronic board that had five targets that lit up individually. Then I was treated to holding a real metal foil with which I had to “hit” each target as it illuminated – like whack-a-mole played in the en garde stance. It was both challenging and fun in a video-game sort of way.

As my lesson came to a close, Ms. Belkina explained that her regular adult students would at that point generally don their masks and electronic sensor-embedded fencing uniforms and spar, with their points displayed on digital scoreboards on the wall. I was hooked. I would definitely have to return to try out the real deal.

So despite a friend’s pre-class warning that’d I’d become a “Trish-kebab” – I left feeling exhilarated. I was deeply intrigued and challenged. In no way did I expect the amount of skill, technique and fitness required to participate in this graceful sport, let alone compete at it. And for the following three days, my legs paid the price.