When New Jersey’s high school fencing teams assembled this winter for their championships, there was a new name on the lineup–Verona. We won a qualifying meet but didn’t medal, but that didn’t dim the enthusiasm of the team at all.
“I look forward to going back next year,” says Alex Klysa. “There are some really tough fencers in New Jersey.”
Klysa is, for now, the one and only member of the Verona High School fencing team and, technically, she’s an independent. But in her passion for the sport, she sees a future in which Verona could field a varsity team to fence against the same schools that they now face in many other sports.
That’s not such a far-fetched idea. A well-established international sport, fencing is getting a higher profile in the United States and New Jersey is leading the way. There are 60 teams statewide, including schools like Montclair, Montclair Kimberley Academy, West Essex, Millburn, Bernards, Gov. Livingston, Ridge and Columbia, and both the Maplewood high school’s boys and girls squads won their state championship this year.
Klysa began fencing in middle school on Long Island and when her parents moved the family to Verona in March of her sophomore year of high school, the first thing on her agenda was to figure out how to fence here. She sent an email to VHS Athletic Director Gary Farishian to introduce herself and ask about her options. Unfortunately, there weren’t many. There’s no provision in public school sports for a resident of one town to play for another, and fencing teams are so small–just nine members–that Klysa would have faced high odds trying to make it as a walk-on, even though she’s a prized lefty.
But there are several private fencing academies around Verona and if you are a fencer at a school that does not have a team you can compete as an independent in the championships. Klysa enrolled at Lilov Fencing Academy in Cedar Grove, which was founded by former members of the Ukrainian national team. Several other Verona students train there too, though not enough yet for a team.
Klysa is at Lilov four times a week for three hours at a clip and she loves every second of it. She successfully lobbied the Board of Education last fall to get fencing recognized as a club sport (which gets no BOE funding), which is how both hockey and lacrosse got their starts. “I’ve done dance, baseball, and softball, but this is the first thing that stuck,” Klysa says. “This is my passion.”
Mark Rossi, an H.B. Whitehorne teacher, saw that first hand when he chaperoned Klysa to the district qualifier. (As an independent, Klysa was required to have a chaperone, which her family paid for.) “She was really hung-ho and she’s trying hard to start this sport in Verona,” Rossi says. “As a teacher, you try to reward that energy.”
Matthew Swajkowski, a VHS science teacher, was Klysa’s chaperone at states and, like Rossi, he had no background in the sport except for the Olympic fencing he had watched. (Klysa gave both a fairly impassioned backgrounder.) “I didn’t realize how fast the sport was,” he says. “It was much quicker than you can imagine when you’re just watching it on TV. I also noticed how intense some of the students were when they would score –screaming, waving their hands, jumping up and down–even if it was for only a single point.” Swajkowski says that the experience “definitely opened my eyes to the sport and I would be supportive of a club or team in the future.”
With its emphasis on speed and strategy, fencing has been called “chess at 100 miles per hour” (see this clip from the 2012 London Olympics). Verona parents wary of concussions and knee and shoulder surgeries in other kids sports might want to give fencing some consideration for other reasons: The most common injuries in fencing are blisters and sprained ankles. And since a fencing match only needs a flat floor and an outlet for the scoring equipment, it might not strain the Board of Education’s budget.
“This is not an expensive sport to start,” says Steve Sobel, a Cedar Grove resident who is the past president of the United States Fencing Association. The New Jersey division of the USFA actively lends expertise and equipment to interested schools, and fencing academy teachers often double as high school coaches. “We are looking to grow the sport,” Sobel says. One other advantage to fencing: America’s top colleges–including the ones that some members of the VHS Class of 2014 will attend–have fencing teams and offer scholarships. “Fencing can open the door to students getting admitted to college,” he adds.
Klysa says her VHS classmates have been very supportive of her sport, and more than a few are intrigued. “People say, ‘wow, I would totally do that’,” Klysa says. She wants to keep fencing in college–and beyond. “I don’t think it will be my job,” she says, “but I can totally see myself as a 70 year old with a hip replacement fencing.”