Fencing draws untraditional athletes

Youths find fulfillment in sport with mental focus at core

Posted 2/26/19

Nico Pope conceded he’s not very good at many sports. The 14-year-old from Castle Rock loves chemistry and, though still an eighth-grader at Mesa Middle School, plans to study computer science in …

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Fencing draws untraditional athletes

Youths find fulfillment in sport with mental focus at core

Posted

Nico Pope conceded he’s not very good at many sports.

The 14-year-old from Castle Rock loves chemistry and, though still an eighth-grader at Mesa Middle School, plans to study computer science in the future. He’s tall for his age and physically fit. It’s the combination of mental focus and athleticism, Pope said, that has allowed him to excel at one sport in particular: Fencing.

“A lot of people refer to it as physical chess,” Pope said.

Pope is one of the top fencers for his age group at the Fencing Academy. He practices at the academy’s Parker location. Pope took third place in a national competition last year and hopes to attend an Ivy League college. So far, the Fencing Academy has alums fencing at Penn State, Notre Dame and Stanford, as well as in international competition.

More kids are falling in love with fencing. Thomas Strzalkowski, the owner of the Fencing Academy of Parker, said kids usually come because they want to sword-fight. They stay for the friendship they find and the opportunities they’re afforded.

During a Feb. 21 practice, Strzalkowski reflected on the change he’s seen in the fencing culture since he moved to Colorado in 2000. He owns three fencing studios in the Denver metro area, in Parker, Littleton and Longmont. He said he has more students than ever before.

Strzalkowski, originally from Poland, fenced on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team and became one of the state’s biggest advocates for the sport. He’s helped implement programs at North Star Academy in Parker and Aspen View Academy in Castle Rock. Those classes are about an hour long once a week.

Strzalkowski dreams of one day introducing the sport to enough area high schools to develop a competitive league through the Colorado High School Athletics Association. For now, Strzalkowski said, he’s working on growing the sport among youths.

“We have to start at the grass roots, when the kids are 8, 9, 10, and eventually we’ll get them into high schools,” Strzalkowski said.

Bringing fencing to mainstream popularity may be far from fruition. The sport has a niche following as it is and has to compete for seasons with much more popular sports like baseball, basketball and football. And, Strzalkowski said, in finding enough experienced coaches to go around.

“How do we pass along to a teacher in high school who would want to teach fencing in high school?” Strzalkowski said. “That’s the tricky part. I haven’t figured it out yet, but as soon as we do, we’ll start opening up in (high) schools here and there.”

Mihaly Csikany joined the Fencing Academy in late February as a coach. The Hungary-born instructor moved to Colorado from the New York Fencing Club in New York City, one of the oldest fencing clubs in the country. He came to Colorado like most people do, for the outdoors and closeness with nature, but also because he sees a promising future for the sport in Colorado.

Twenty-one kids from the Fencing Academy in Parker, Littleton and Longmont went on to compete in national competition.

“The program here is one of the strongest in the country,” Csikany said. “It might not be a native sport to Denver, but it’s definitely getting there. I think parents are seeing the opportunity.”

Strzalkowski said the sport is an important opportunity in the community for kids who aren’t cut out for team sports. He said introverts are drawn to fencing for the individuality of the sport. Many find they excel at the mental aspect of the sport — focusing on small details and analyzing an opponent in a split-second decision. Most of his students, Strzalkowski said, are top students in math and science as well.

And the sport brings the kids together. Some are outcast from sports or social groups. Within the sport, they find like-minded friends.

“They like fencing because there are many other kids like them. They have the same hobbies, they play the same video games, they watch the same shows, read the same books,” Strzalkowski said. “All of a sudden, the kids who come here who are very shy and don’t like to socialize too much are socializing and they make friends.”

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