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Passion of the fencers

With all its gamesmanship, fencing resembles a life-size chess match

Wonsuk Choi

MU Fencing Club president Paul Vaughan fights Nick Cofield at the MU Student Recreation Complex. Vaughan is currently training for U.S. Fencing Nationals.

March 18, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST

The opponents shuffle back and forth. Their calf muscles bulge from otherwise lean legs as they move quickly in a linear motion, hopping on their toes. The harsh clatter of steel on steel echoes through the gym.

Attack. Parry. Counterattack.

The two fencers plot each move like knights on a life-sized chessboard.

Jon DiLallo of the MU fencing team practices at the MU Student Recreation Center.

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Suddenly, a green light flashes, and a bell tolls, signifying a hit. The point goes to Jonathon DiLallo.

“Ah! I thought I had that,” Paul Vaughan says, shaking his head and retreating. DiLallo laughs, obviously pleased.
The fencers reposition themselves, serious again. Facing each other, they crouch, bodies in control, swords pointed forward.

The guys are gearing up for U.S. Fencing Nationals this summer. They are members of the MU Fencing Club, a group that meets three times a week on a volleyball court in the MU Student Recreation Complex. MU student fencers of all skill levels gather to practice their techniques and refine their skills. It’s a workout of both the body and the mind, and the dual stimulation draws in many club members.

At fencing coach Bill Chisenhall’s command, the group drops to the floor, hops up and quickly turns to jog across the court. Their sneakers squeak on the gym floor with each rapid turnaround.

Over the commotion, coach shouts “M-I-Z” and is met with a boisterous “Z-O-U” from his fencers. “Let me see your war face!” he booms over the late-’90s rock playing overhead. Eyes clenched, mouths wide, the fencers respond with a roar that draws curious glances from joggers circling the track above. The focused fencers don’t notice.

On the other side of the court, the beginners take their first stab at the sport. Chisenhall weaves in and out of the amateur fencers, watching intently and giving pointers.

It’s a game of salesmanship; you are always trying to convince your opponents to do what you want them to do, he explains.

It’s freshman Richard Zapata’s first practice, and he’s already hooked. “Fencing is kind of like an art form,” Zapata says. He intently gazes at DiLallo and Vaughan as they fight. Zapata’s eager to get in there and learn from the two veterans.

At the end of practice, the group closes in a tight circle. They let loose an energetic “Woo!” and break apart. Long after the coach leaves, most will stay and continue practicing an art form they strive to perfect.

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