En Garde!May 25, 2018 08:24AM ● By J. Chambless
Jeff Safko, the owner and head coach at Modern Duelists Fencing Academy, offers a pointer to one of the students. (Photo by Steve Hoffman)
Jeff Safko and Rob Conway opened the Modern Duelists Fencing Academy five years ago after Safko taught fencing as a continuing education sport at Cecil College, and found out that there were a number of people in the area who wanted to advance further in the sport than what could be achieved through a non-credit college class that was offered periodically.
“There was a demand for an ongoing fencing class in the area,” Safko explained during an interview in April.
So Safko and Conway teamed up to open their own academy, offering lessons in competitive fencing to people like Ryleigh Johnson, who was one of the original members of the Modern Duelists Fencing Academy. She is such a fencing enthusiast, in fact, that she now helps Safko and Conway―she serves as an instructor, and plays a prominent role in the youth program, helping to plan lessons and to lead during drills. She is also one of the academy's USA Fencing-certified referees.
Competitive fencing is one of the oldest sports in the world. It also has the distinction of being among only a handful of sports that have been featured in every modern Olympic Games. According to Safko and Conway, fencing is a sport that is growing in popularity, and they see more people in Cecil County and the surrounding areas who, like Johnson, are interested in learning the sport.
When they first opened the Modern Duelists Fencing Academy, classes took place in a smaller space. They moved into their current home in Building 205 of the Triumph Industrial Park on Blue Ball Road in Elkton about four years ago. Because its location is in close proximity to Chester County in Pennsylvania and New Castle County in Delaware, the academy draws participants from all three states. Between 65 and 85 people are taking fencing classes, depending on the time of year, and they range in age from around 8 years old to 75 years old.
Safko explained that fencing is not a sport that is dominated by strength or by speed―people of all sizes and all ages can find success at it. As evidence of that, there's an 8-year-old in one of the classes who enthusiastically takes on one of the taller students each week.
“Fencing is very much a sport and not a martial art,” Safko said. “In modern fencing, the focus is more on the modern scoring rules, rather than technical study and the general application of swordfighting. Fencing has a specific set of rules. It's an individual sport.”
It's the individual nature of the sport that attracts people who want to be a part of the action and maybe don't want to be a part of a team where the actual participation is limited.
“For some folks, this is the first sport that really sticks with them,” Safko explained.
Lotte Bowie took up fencing because her son, George Bowie, signed up for fencing and really enjoyed it. She wanted to understand more about the sport, and more about what her son was learning.
“It's an interesting sport that is challenging,” she said.
Participants start out in beginner's classes and then, after some training, advance to intermediate classes at their own pace. At any given time, most of the students at Modern Duelists Fencing Academy are at the intermediate level. They then progress to advanced classes when they have accumulated enough knowedge and experience. A participant's level of experience is what really determines the level that they train at, and there are lots of options for private lessons and extra work.
Safko said that he likes having students with different levels of experience to compete against each other because it's a good way to learn―the more experienced participant learns by teaching and explaining, and the younger participant learns by working with someone who is more advanced.
Conway, who previously studied martial arts, said that anyone can succeed at learning fencing―it's an activity for anyone who is willing to put in some work to learn the basics.
The epee is a lightweight thrusting weapon that fencing participants use. The entire body is a valid target during competitions, but all hits must be with the tip of the blade―hits with the side of the blade do not register on the electronic scoring systems that are used. The area where the athletes compete―the strip―is long and narrow, so quickness is more important than speed.
“You have a fast-paced set of rules,” Conway explained. “There's also a lot of strategy involved.”
Conway said that many people, including himself, like the mental aspect of the sport, and they like being able to out-think the opponent in the moment.
Safko, who has been teaching fencing for more than 16 years, emphasized that the sport is very safe. Participants wear protective clothing, and the blade itself is flexible to soften the impact.
“It's a 'combat sport,' but it's very safe,” he explained. “Nobody is going to get hurt out there. It's fast and fun.”
Safko is a certified moniteur d'epee with the United States Fencing Coaches Association (USFCA). He has extensive personal fencing experience that includes college and national-level competitive experience. He helps the fencing students improve their tactical and technical skills. Conway, meanwhile, also has extensive competitive experience in fencing and other sports, which allows him to be a valuable resource for participants like Justin Tirrell, who is very focused on local and regional competitions.
Tirrell, like Johnson, is one of the instructors at the academy. The West Grove, Pa. resident joined Modern Duelists in 2015 after fencing with the University of Delaware.
This summer, Tirrell will be taking part in nationals in St. Louis after qualifying in several regional events, an impressive accomplishment for someone who has been fencing for the last six or seven years.
When asked what he likes about the sport, Tirrell responded, “everything.”
He also enjoys sharing his competitive know-how with other fencers at the academy. He is a certified referee with USA Fencing.
While some of the people who take classes at Modern Duelists Fencing Academy are very focused on competitions and advancing as far in the sport as they possibly can, others simply want a good workout or want to spend time doing a fun activity with a friend or family member.
Frank Boyko, a resident of Elkton, took up the sport because his son was fencing and he thought he would enjoy it, too.
“It's a sport that parents and kids can do together,” Boyko explained. “It's a physical challenge. It's really one of the best workouts that you can have.”
There is no real off-season in fencing, but each Aug. 1 starts a new competitive season. Most of the competitions take place during the school year, and June and July are typically slower months before the activities ramp up again for the next season. Each year, the Modern Duelists Fencing Academy pairs off all of its participants into two teams for what they call the “War of the Room” that gives everybody the opportunity to take part in a friendly competition.
One of the reasons that the academy has attracted a growing number of students is the emphasis on having the students enjoy themselves while they are safely learning the sport.
Whenever fencing is featured in the Olympics, Safko said, an uptick in interest can be expected in the U.S. While there hasn't been a Michael Jordan or a Tiger Woods―a true national sensation―to lift the sport up to a new level for a wider audience yet, it's only a matter of time because the U.S. is producing better athletes who are achieving more success on the world stage.
“The U.S. has gotten a lot stronger,” Safko explained.
So for now the Modern Duelists Fencing Academy will continue to focus on building its reputation one student at a time.
Conway said that the academy has very much become like a family over the last five years. It's a very supportive environment, and the coaches make sure that each person advances at his or her own pace.
“We have a great group,” Conway said. “They are all always helping each other and rooting for each other.”
contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email [email protected]