On an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon, the waist-high figure of a knight in slightly tarnished armor silently greets visitors to the Mid-South Fencers Club on North Gregson Street downtown.
The gym sings with the ring and metal clash of dueling swords while combatants engage in the choreography and poetry of attack – lunge, thrust, parry, riposte, retreat and touche – during the organization’s eighth annual Mid-South Grand Open Tournament & Gala.
“We call it the ‘grand open’ because it marks when we first opened,” said Jen Oldham, who founded the fencing club in 2008. She and her husband Jeff Kallio have run the club together since 2010. The first event was in February that year in the basement of Joe Van Gogh’s coffeeshop on Broad Street, near the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics.
“It was a dark, dank basement that flooded during a hurricane,” Oldham said.
From the onset, the interest in the sport and competition was apparent. About 100 people showed up for the 2008 event, Kallio said.
Oldham, who played team sports in high school, took up the sport in college after taking a fencing class to fulfill a physical education requirement. On Sunday, she said the sport requires “intense focus. Real stuff. A life essence” that recalls a time when men dueled to the death.
“But now we get to do this in a highly controlled environment,” she said. “There’s like a certain exhilaration when you score. It’s like a rush and you have to calm your mind. You have to calm your body. I had never been involved in a sport that touched me on such a personal level.”
The weekend competition featured the épée, a lightweight, tapered, three-sided weapon with a gleaming bell guard made of aluminum or stainless steel to protect the fencer’s hand.
About 125 competitors from all over the state, including Wilmington and the Triad, participated.
“The épée is one of three Olympics-style weapons,” Oldham said. The other two are the foil and sabre, which is normally the Durham club’s training weapon of choice.
The 100-foot-by-50-foot gym, which opened in 2013, has a custom-built wooden floor specially designed to absorb the impact of fencers’ balletlike footwork, Kallio said. Each bout takes place in a rectangular space known as the “piste.”
Four bouts take place simultaneously while referees monitor the competition among combatants outfitted in the fencer’s uniform of a black, steel-mesh mask, and heavy white cotton trousers and jackets. The sword is connected electronically to the scoring machine by wires hidden under the clothing the number times someone is poked or slashed.
Referee Joseph Pipkin readies two combatants, Katheryn Byrnes and Shiou Tian Hsu, for a match. Byrnes and Hsu resemble marionettes because of the wiring that extends from the back of the vests to the electronic scoring machine just above their heads.
Each combatant is armed with an épée that’s also connected to the scoring machine to record when the point of the weapon touches or hits an opponent. Each bout is fought for five hits, and when contact is made by the épée tip, a metal spring inside depresses and a light from the scoring machine goes off.
“It has to depress in order for it to go off,” one of the weekend warriors, Kelly Herrick, a civil engineer who lives in Raleigh, said.
Just before their confrontation, Byrnes and Hsu lift the shields of their masks and salute by pointing their weapons at each other.
“En garde!” Pipkin commands.
Byrnes, a member of the UNC-Greensboro Fencing Club, is petite and shorter than Hsu, a computer science major at N.C. State. The matches are three rounds, with each round lasting three minutes. By the end of the final round, Byrnes used a quick first step to lunge and thrust the tip of her sword upward to lash her taller opponent’s right armpit. Even though Byrnes got in some impressive touches, it was not enough to overcome Hsu’s big lead. She lost, 6-13.
“I had the advantage because I was taller,” said Hsu, who began studying fencing about 16 years ago.
“He was able to get better control,” said Byrnes, who first took a class in fencing during her freshman year about 2 1/2 years ago. “I have loved it ever since,” she added.
Oldham and Kallio married a little over a year ago. Long before their marriage, the couple bonded over their love for fencing after they met in the late 1990s at UNC-Charlotte, where Kallio was teaching fencing and Oldham was briefly after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she was a member of the fencing team.
“I wasn’t particularly outstanding,” Oldham said. “But there were a couple of Duke fencers who I made cry.”
Oldham, a former high school athlete in Southern Pines, might not have been “particularly outstanding,” but she was passionate enough about the sport to begin training and teaching at the U.S. Olympic Trials facility in Portland, Ore., from 1997 until 2004.
Oldham and Kallio credit Ron Miller, UNC-Chapel Hill fencing coach now in his 49th year, for his creation of the N.C. Fencing Development Program that has led to a growing interest in the sport in North Carolina.
“That program has been in existence for decades,” Oldham, said. “I call him the grandfather of North Carolina fencing.”
Oldham and Kallio have continued that tradition. They work as instructors at the fencing club, with 200 students between the ages of 7 and 84.
“Most of them are youth fencers,” Oldham said.
Herrick, the 26-year-old civil engineer, won the Durham competition. Throughout the day Sunday, he took to the piste with flair, his weapon thrust forward and the other hand resting on his hip. At one point he taunted an opponent by thrusting his masked face at him and smacked his épée on the wooden floor.
Kallio, who was Herrick’s first teacher more than 16 years ago, said personality is a big part of the sport.
“Oh yeah, very much so. How each person approaches the sport is very unique,” he said. “Sports doesn’t build character. It reveals it. I can’t remember who said that.”
Several other fencers bounce on their feet, recalling another adage used to describe the sport: chess at the speed of boxing.
“It’s more than a style,” said Wesley Chen, 22, of Raleigh, about his bouncing technique. “If you’re moving your feet, it’s hard to get caught flat-footed.”