The two opponents stand facing each other, swords drawn. Masks obscure their faces. Tension stretches across the silence. The blades rise in salute, then drop down into the en garde position. There’s a beat and then they burst into action. The clash echoes as the swords strike each other, the points seeking an opening to dart in and score a hit.
No, this isn’t a scene from “The Princess Bride” or “The Three Musketeers,” but one that goes down at the Breckenridge Recreation Center on Fridays and Sundays. Just this year, the rec center began offering open fencing sessions, where amateurs and aficionados alike can come together to practice under the watchful eye of instructor Mario Santa Cruz.
Santa Cruz has been fencing since 1976. After graduating college, he moved to Colorado from California and took up with the Aurora Fencing Club. It was the start of a long, passionate affair with fencing that continues today. A little over a decade after he started fencing, he became a fencing coach, completing his first stint as instructor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Currently, Santa Cruz splits his time between fencing and his day job as professor of physics at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge.
One of the things that drew Santa Cruz to fencing was the way it combines mental as well as physical strategy. He refers to it as “physical chess,” and encourages his students to use their brains as much as their footwork and swordplay during bouts.
“It’s a great individual sport and team sport, too,” he said, referring to tournaments in which individual fencers represent their clubs. “The motivation for me is, I enjoy doing it. … It keeps me in shape and it’s a really fun thing to teach and watch your fencers do well as they progress in time.”
His students range widely in age and ability. His youngest recruits are Rudy Burki, 11, and Peter Vos, 10, who joined last spring after Santa Cruz performed a demonstration at their schools. Both boys said they were impressed by the performance and have enjoyed learning more over the past several months. Rudy, who also plays hockey and other team sports, said he’s appreciated the individual aspect of fencing and has even been able to apply its lessons in mental attitude to his other sports.
“It’s really a hard sport to master,” Santa Cruz said, in regards to his younger students. “They’re very enthusiastic, as all kids are, and you just want to keep that motivation going by teaching them the correct technique and hopefully having success.”
In fact, Rudy is headed to his first tournament tomorrow, an experience that Santa Cruz hopes will not only give him further perspective on what fencing clubs are like, but also increase his dedication to learning.
“Hopefully that will give him some motivation,” Santa Cruz said.
Summit High School senior Cole Currier is also among the fencers under Santa Cruz’s wing. He’s been fencing since May and plans to continue in college, if possible.
Part of the attraction is that “it’s an antique and very renaissance thing to do,” he said. “It’s very fun on a personal level.”
Anyone from age 8 and up is welcome to participate. Fitness level, skill level and gender don’t factor in at all, Santa Cruz said, although a certain fitness level will certainly be attained through practice. Even after 10 minutes of short bouts, the fencers at practice were breathing heavily and dripping in sweat. The physical challenge comes from using different pairs of muscles to maintain the correct stance and hold the weapon correctly.
Jesina Elliston is a new convert to the sport. She started lessons in April just to try it out and now she’s hooked.
“It’s like nothing I’ve done before,” she said. It hasn’t been easy but she’s been enjoying the challenges, from combining hand-eye and foot-eye coordination to overcoming the mixture of nervousness and excitement during the bouts, which often happen at high speed. Having Santa Cruz’s knowledge and experience to draw on has been helpful as well.
“I love Mario as a teacher,” she said. “He has so much enthusiasm but he’s also very understanding. He pushes us, but when he sees us getting down on ourselves, he picks us up.”
She added that Santa Cruz is very good about giving individual attention to each fencer, coaching them in accordance to their specific needs.
Anyone can attend the open fencing sessions, held on Fridays and Sundays. They require a small fee, the amount depending on whether the fencer holds a pass to the rec center.
The only other requirement is equipment. Each fencer needs the basic safety gear and a weapon. The basic starter sets cost $100, Santa Cruz said, and he’s willing to speak with anyone interested to explain what’s needed and help in any way he can.
For those wanting to watch some fencing or learn a little bit more of it beforehand, Santa Cruz recommends looking it up online. YouTube, for example, shows bouts at the world championships and the Olympics, as well as basic beginner lessons.
For entertainment or motivation to learn, “just tell them to watch the latest sword and sorcery type movie,” Santa Cruz said with a laugh.