Notre Dame students embrace non-traditional sport

GREEN BAY — Steven Stary, fencing coach at Notre Dame Academy, Green Bay, has addressed some misconceptions about the sport over the years.

“We have a lot of kids who thought they were going to be swinging from ropes,” he said with a laugh. “I make them stretch and warm up. They don’t realize that it is as intense as anything else. I tell people, ‘When you see the Olympics, we do that, just not as well.’”

In defense of those students who envisioned a different type of sword play, the club did begin as an offshoot of the drama club. Stary, who took up fencing in college at the University of Wisconsin, became the drama club moderator at Notre Dame in 1999, his first year teaching at the school.

“They were doing a play that called for a small amount of stage combat,” he explained. “I trained a couple of actors. I taught them some fencing moves so they would look convincing. They had so much fun doing it, that it was suggested that we have a fencing club.”

Notre Dame Academy fencers Bree Chlo, left, and April Park work on attacks and parries. (Jeff Kurowski | The Compass)

Notre Dame Academy fencers Bree Chlo, left, and April Park work on attacks and parries. (Jeff Kurowski | The Compass)

Notre Dame and Catholic Memorial in Waukesha are the only two high schools in the state to offer fencing. Club participants are newcomers to the sport, so Stary begins with the basics.

“We start with how to stand, how to move, how to walk forward and back and basic attacks and parries (deflects of an opponent’s blade),” he said. “They are all very simple to execute. You train them over and over again so they become a habit, a reflex, so you can do them very fast without having to think about them.”

A willingness to learn and the ability to process mistakes are keys to improvement, added Stary.

“You have to be self-reflective and willing to take advice from others because you don’t always see yourself what your movements look like,” he said. “It’s a series of simple steps. If you watch the competitors at the Olympics, they are just doing a series of simple steps very fast.”

Sophomore Jack Perron, now in his second year with the club, has recognized improvement in his skills.

“I have come a long way,” he said. “I also did fencing over the summer. One tricky skill is the feints. There are a bunch of feints. I can only do a couple. I’m still learning to master a few.”

Feints are actions which resemble an attack to make an opponent react.

“I have developed a lot more sense of paying attention to details and trying to anticipate what my opponent is going to do,” said sophomore Alex Wasilkoff, a newcomer to the sport this year.

Bree Chlo, a senior from South Korea, joined fencing last year.

“My mom persuaded me to do it,” she said. “I’m learning the angles. Whenever I have my arms too high, Mr. Stary moves my arms down. This is one of my only workouts. It’s fun.”

The club meets on Saturdays throughout the school year. Due to interest, Stary also started a fencing club outside the school for all ages.

The Notre Dame club, which has 16 members, is self-supporting. Equipment is sometimes a challenge due to cost and availability.

“We have to order it online,” said Stary. “Our first sets of equipment were my own and some donated by friends of mine from college.”

The sabers have blunt tips for safety. The masks feature a metal mesh and the jackets absorb most of the impact. Stary’s wife, Dierdra, a seamstress, makes repairs to the jackets.

“She also coaches here,” said Stary. “There are a number of private clubs in the Madison and Milwaukee areas. We go down to Madison ourselves to get instruction so we can be more effective coaches.”

Notre Dame hosts an in-house tournament in January. The event also serves as a social gathering with food.

A standard fencing bout is five points. During a tournament, fencers compete in a number of five-point bouts in pool play, followed by a direct elimination bracket featuring 15-point bouts.

“The competitor who takes first place has won 15 points against any number of opponents by the end of the tournament, so stamina is important,” said Stary. “Hand-eye coordination is another good characteristic for a fencer.”

The learning extends beyond the skills of the sport, he added.

“I think the biggest thing they take from fencing is confidence,” he said. “You are on your own against your opponent. You may have your team and your coach rooting for you, but you have to face that person on your own.”