Anna Cortese said she likes to poke people, at least when she has a sword in her hand.
The 11-year-old student at St. Mary’s Institute has been fencing at the Swords and Strategy Fencing Club in the Riverfront Center for about a month.
Left hand behind her back, right arm outstretched holding her poking device, Cortese studied her opponent during a recent practice session at the club. In an instant, she lunged forward, hoping to strike, and got poked directly in the stomach. After all, she is just a beginner.
Cortese is one of about seven young girls who have taken up the sport of fencing at the club.
“I like being with my friends, poking them before they poke me,” she said during a recent practice session with her friend, Annie Riley, 11, who has also taken up the sport.
The girls said they learned about the sport at a birthday party, when their friend’s older sister mentioned she was going to try it. They all went along and got hooked.
Riley, who has two older brothers, frequently envisions battling one of them during her bouts.
The Swords and Strategy Fencing Club began about 20 years ago when Michael McDarby, a biology professor at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, couldn’t find a place to fence. McDarby, now in his mid-50s, began fencing in college at the University at Albany.
He said he likes the mental strategy: reading people and deciphering their movements and emotional state; analyzing patterns or lack of patterns. He said the sport is something that you can do for a lifetime and never get bored.
“You never run out of stuff to train yourself on,” he said.
His wife, Sara, began fencing while dating McDarby in college.
“I was there so often, and one time, I just suited up,” she said.
Sara McDarby, 49, said she was surprised at how serious the girls are about the sport.
“I thought they would be all giggly, but they are serious,” Sara McDarby said. “I can’t wait until they get better and start beating the boys.”
Before the younger girls started showing up, Marie Thomas, 15, of Amsterdam, was one of the only girls fencing at the club.
She’s been working out at Swords and Strategy for nearly three years, mostly with college students, she said.
“I like the camaraderie,” she said. “It’s a chivalrous sport, so everyone is really nice.”
Thomas also said she likes that the sport can be individual — you don’t have to be a member of a team to compete — and there is always some new strategy to learn.
“They call this physical chess,” she said.
Fencing, one of the world’s oldest sports, is not widely popular in the United States. Participants can compete using one of three weapons: saber, epee or foil. Each weapon has its own rules. Those at Swords and Strategy use epees, which are long, thin swords.
The sport has become more technological, with each epee attached to an electric device that beeps when it makes contact.
The sport has gone through various transitions to make it more popular, including the way it’s scored, Sara McDarby said.
Previously, fencers were given points when they got hit and lost after they received five points. Now, fencers are given points for hitting their opponent, with the winner having the most points.
Since the club moved to the Riverfront Center in September, it has attracted a new batch of members. Other fencing clubs have formed in Schenectady, Saratoga Springs, Albany and Troy.
“When we started in the mid-’70s, no one was fencing,” Sara McDarby said. “Now, it seems to be getting more popular.”
Michael McDarby said people of all ages can fence, but because of the size of the weapons, he discourages anyone younger than 7 years old.
Body type isn’t a factor in the sport. Being tall is an advantage, but being quick and agile is better, he said.
“The nice thing about this sport is anyone can do it and be successful because there are so many ways to be successful,” Sara McDarby said.
Gerard DeCusatis, the city’s corporation counsel, has been fencing with his family for about two years at Swords and Strategy.
DeCusatis said he likes fencing because it’s one of the only combat sports that has no real risk of injury.
“With things like karate, you’re always going to walk away with something hurting,” he said.
DeCusatis’ son, Peter, is one of two students at the club who have qualified for this year’s Junior Olympics in Albuquerque, N.M.
Sarah Wagoner, 15, of Johnstown, the other qualifier, is one of the few girls from the club to have ever qualified.
Wagoner said she likes fencing because it’s an old sport and she likes medieval culture. She said her friends think what she is doing is “cool” and are supportive. So are her siblings, an older brother and sister and a younger brother.
“They think it’s cool. They didn’t expect that I’d do it,” she said.
Wagoner, who is home schooled, said she plans to attend the Franciscan University at Stubenville, Ohio. She wants to be a psychiatrist.
Wagoner’s mother, Christine, who took both Sarah and her brother to their first fencing lesson, never expected it would be her daughter who would stick with it.
“It’s a total surprise,” she said. “Sarah is very feminine, but she is the type of woman that doesn’t think she should be held back because she’s a girl.”
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