Nevada County Fencing Club has been teaching all ages time-honored tradition | TheUnion.com

Nevada County Fencing Club has been teaching all ages time-honored tradition

The centuries-old sport of fencing is alive and well in Nevada County, and instructor Rob Woodhall has one theory as to why: it's the only sport where students get to take a poke at the teacher.

Woodhall, a Grass Valley chiropractor, took his first fencing class right after high school in his hometown of Sunnyvale in 1980. He quickly excelled and went on to become a student-teacher at DeAnza Jr. College from 1980 to 83, then in 1984 fenced on the San Jose State Fencing Team.

He also became the team's "armorer," which meant he was responsible for fixing and maintaining all weapons. For him, the sport had become a passion.

"Many people refer to fencing as a physical game of chess," he said. "It's a very mental game — you always have to think several moves ahead, but after a while you also develop a subconscious awareness — a sense of what your opponent will do next."

Choose your weapon

After moving to Grass Valley, Woodhall was approached in 1998 about teaching a fencing class at Bitney College Preparatory High School, which had just opened on Bitney Springs Road.

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"I told them, 'If you buy the gear, I'll teach,'" said Woodhall, with a laugh. "That gave us a start, and the program eventually evolved into the Nevada County Fencing Club."

Today, the family-friendly club has been teaching Olympic-style fencing to adults and children for the past 14 years. Classes are now taught during the evening at the Grass Valley Veterans Memorial Building. The main goal, said Woodhall (who is now the director), is that students have fun learning to fence in a safe and supportive environment. Skills learned include exceptional hand-eye coordination, focus and control — not to mention getting an exceptional workout.

The sport of fencing uses three primary weapons, the "foil," "epee" and "sabre." The foil is a lighter sword with a flexible, rectangular blade about 35 inches in length, and weighing less than a pound. Points are scored with the tip of the blade on a target, which includes the torso from shoulders to groin in the front, and to the waist in the back.

The epee is a descendant of the larger dueling sword, weighing about 27 ounces, with a stiffer, thicker blade and a larger guard. In epee the entire body, head-to-toe, is considered a valid target, more like in an actual duel. Similar to the foil, the point of the epee has a spring-loaded button, but require more force to register a "touch."

The sabre is considered to be a modern version of the slashing cavalry sword. Unlike the other two weapons, it can score with the edge of its blade as well as the point. In sabre, the target area is the entire body above the waist, excluding the hands.

During classes, students wear heavy, protective jackets, gloves and a mask that covers three quarters of their head.

"They're moving fast while constantly engaging the mind," said Woodhall. "It's the second sweatiest sport — the first is karate."

Family friendly fencing

While Woodhall teaches beginning students, the club's intermediate/advanced instructor, Wally Oliver, started fencing in high school in 1968, and fenced in his first U.S. national championship in 1970. He held an "A" rating in epee for 20 years, has won many local competitions and also fenced saber and foil, earning a "C" in both weapons, and providing him a good background in all weapons. He has served in leadership roles with the United States Fencing Association's national board, and has managed and run scores of fencing tournaments, including the U.S. Nationals.

Students range in age from elementary school to grandparents, and some entire families take classes together, said Woodhall. Club members have also been known to help choreograph duels for local actors and put on demonstrations. The Nevada County Fencing Club made a special appearance at the Nevada City Film Festival's showing of the film, "The Princess Bride," where members demonstrated Olympic-style live swordplay like that used in the movie. Club members also put on demonstrations at the annual Family Fall Festival, scheduled this year from 5 to 6 p.m. on Oct. 31 at Twin Cities Church.

"I've been fencing for nearly six years and as I began to learn and practice more, the interest expanded," said student Isaac Biggs. "After about two years I started training in the other styles of fencing, sabre and epee. I think the reason I've stayed this long is because it's the one sport I've put so much effort into, I've persevered and I strive for more as often as I can. When it comes to our teachers, the only thing I can say is that without them, it wouldn't even be fun. They create an environment that makes you feel safe and helps you learn and keep pushing for constant improvement."

A new session of classes will begin on Oct. 16, and will continue for eight weeks. Classes run from 6:45 to 8:45 p.m. at the Grass Valley Veterans Memorial Building and visitors are always welcome to observe from the bleachers. The cost for the session is $65. An open house is tentatively planned for early December, when community members are encouraged to come out and try the sport.

"Fencing is much more individual than a team sport," said Woodhall. "The first person you have to beat is yourself. You have to learn to put away your doubts and only think about the other person. It's wonderful to see a kid give it a try and then begin to light up."

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

Nevada County Fencing Club

New eight-week session begins from 6:45 to 8:45 p.m. on Oct. 16 at the Grass Valley Veterans Memorial Building, 255 S. Auburn St., Grass Valley.

Website: http://ncfencing.wix.com/ncfc

Phone: 530-432-1750

More information coming soon regarding a open house in early December.

Demonstration on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TSiDiZXk-dQ