OLD TOWN, Maine — The clanking of metal on metal fills the wood-paneled gymnasium of the Herbert Sargent Community Center. Students, quick on their feet and dressed head-to-toe in white protective gear and black mesh masks, face one another.
One young fencer lunges first, and the other responds, striking her opponent. With the sound of a buzzer, a point is added to the electric scoreboard nearby. When the bout is over and their coach has reviewed how each did, the girls salute and walk off, chattering to themselves.
The students are part of Downeast School of Fencing, founded and run by John Krauss of Verona Island. Krauss, a fencing master, began teaching students in Maine after a career as a social worker in New Jersey. He said he uses a lot of his experience to bring families together through sports classes he teaches in Northeast Harbor, Bucksport, Belfast and Old Town.
“I use a lot of my techniques from [social work] in my coaching, whether that’s having relationships with parents or encouraging families to get involved or find a way to help out,” he said. “It’s about developing those relationships.”
Krauss began fencing in college, when he took a course to fulfill his physical education requirement. Now, years later, it’s his life. Last year, he received a fencing master teacher certification and he regularly competes nationally.
A family affair
For father and son, Lindy and Eli Davies, of Jackson, fencing with the school has been the one constant in their relationship for the past 10 years. At a recent class in Old Town, the pair reflected on their past decade and what it has meant for their family.
Their passion started in response to Eli’s keen interest in swordplay, Lindy said. One day, Krauss asked Lindy to help out during one of the youth classes, and he never looked back.
“They used to call me the champion of the kids’ class,” Lindy said.
As Eli looks toward his last school year at home before attending college, he and his father hope to make the most of their time together. Both say they will continue fencing — Lindy in classes with Krauss and Eli wherever he ends up for school.
“It’s so much a part of our routine that I’ll probably just keep coming every week, but it just won’t be the same,” Lindy said, adding that it hasn’t always been easy, but he’s proud of them for always improving.
Eli agreed, adding that he wants to continue setting goals and challenging himself.
“I love that it’s physically demanding but also so mental, too. There’s not one without the other, and there’s always something to improve,” he said.
Lindy likens the constant learning fencers go through to that of classical ballerinas or musicians.
“It’s a very classical sport: There’s a set of skills and formations, and you’re constantly trying to figure out how best to put them into combinations,” he said.
Krauss will offer individual lessons for students who want to work on a particular skill.
“Fencing can be a very humbling sport. No bout is ever the same, and I try to tell my students to look at each one as practice for the next one,” Krauss said.
More than athletic prowess
The fencers in Krauss’ club aren’t your average youth soccer or football player, but that doesn’t make them any less of an athlete. They’re wiry kids, easy going and quick to talk about their unique sport and how it takes both strength and a touch of genius.
“It’s a quick sport, and you have to be smart about it, too,” Lily Millard, 9, said, adding that she also plays hockey, which she feels is also fun, but in a different way.
Krauss also encourages children, especially teens, to consider each fencing tournament as a step toward a larger goal, such as participating at a collegiate level. Several of his former students have gone on to fence at national and international tournaments, and many participate on college or adult club teams.
“Fencing is a complete sport. It’s also an individual sport, and it’s good for young people to have responsibility for their own fencing success,” he said.
But it’s not just for kids. Krauss competes at a “veteran” level with bouts dedicated to fencers age 40 and older. Krauss said he could face someone many years his senior and, while he may be younger than his opponent, the elder fencer may be more nimble on his or her feet than first meets the eye.
“It’s a lifetime sport, and experience and a solid knowledge base is a major thing,” Krauss. said.
An upcoming trend
Fencing programs are not commonplace in Maine, but they’re around. Some high schools in the Bangor area are starting programs or clubs.
Krauss said Ellsworth High School may start to include fencing in its physical education courses, and he recently worked with Olympic fencing medalist Tim Morehouse through a program called “Fencing in the Schools” to secure equipment.
In addition, Krauss said he hopes to someday open a studio at his home on Verona Island to keep the sport alive as it has been for generations.
“Fencing is the evolution of swordplay, and without it, firearms would put us out of business,” he said with a chuckle.