A blunt sword sits sheathed on our fireplace mantle because I couldn’t think of anywhere else to put it. My husband, Jarrod Orange, won it as the first-place trophy in a small fencing tournament at Greenville’s Knights of Siena Fencing Academy, where he’d taken up the sport six months prior. The win was surprising, but the academy’s very existence was the real shocker. Boasting a national championship and a founder, Alan Blakeborough, with a countrywide reputation for professionalizing fencing, the school somehow remains invisible to much of the community.
The Knights of Siena gym on Rutherford Road is one of four locations in the Carolinas founded by Blakeborough. It operates out of a nondescript brick building neighbor to an auto repair shop and what appears to be a defunct motel. Blakeborough brought his fencing schools to the area after successful runs in New York and Florida. The Greenville location spawned the 2006–2007 National Sabre Team champions (the first winning team from outside of California or New York) and groomed several successful NCAA athletes over the years. Yet it’s also home to a community of regular folks who found and fell in love with the sport long after their school days ended.
“Star Wars, pirates, or knights in shining armor,” says Blakeborough, explaining the common motivators for people to take up fencing. “Or they’ve seen fencing on TV. I had a student who fences for NYU now because she saw fencing in The Parent Trap.” My husband turned out to be one of the romantics. “It’s something about the chivalrous, Old World kind of thing you can still access in modern times,” Orange says. “Plus, it’s a sport where I can still be competitive for a long time.”
It’s true: fencing offers a lively yet sustainable workout for aging bodies. At 35, Jarrod could compete nationally in the one of five veteran categories, the last of which is for players 70 and older. Knights of Siena’s roughly 30 students range in age from seven to 54, and their backgrounds are just as diverse. Everyone fences everyone else, using whatever assets they have.
Hal Roach, a 54-year-old attorney who has been fencing less than a year, cautions against assuming adolescents are less challenging. “They will beat you within an inch of your life, and not even break a sweat doing it,” he says. “They’re these tiny little people who will just slash you to ribbons.” While Blakeborough says fencing maintains the lowest injury rates of any Olympic sport, bruises are definitely part of the experience. The physicality becomes easier to understand while watching monthly tournaments.
“It’s something about the chivalrous, Old World kind of thing you can still access in modern times. Plus, it’s a sport where I can still be competitive for a long time.”—Jarrod Orange
Picture this: two ivory-clad, masked opponents step onto a red piste, the narrow 5-by-46-foot strip on which they fence. They tap swords twice, then raise them in the air in a gesture reminiscent of a toast. The opponents turn slightly and “toast” the referee as well, then bounce a bit at the knees and rock on the balls of their feet until they hear, “En guarde. Ready. Fence!” A flurry of jabs and explosive leaps are unleashed, with lunges so deep rear ankles graze the floor. A blade rakes audibly across a facemask. Backbends and sideways contortions aid in dodging attacks. They move like this until a loud beep! signals one of them has landed a blow, the “phrase” has ended, and the action halts. They reset, and begin again. And again. And again.
Though they often end up sweaty and panting, Knights of Siena fencers say the true workout is mental. It’s like chess, so I’ve learned to look for the moment when a fencer breaks and is headed toward a loss, or has suddenly connected the dots and is about to win. It’s hard to watch when one combatant mercilessly exploits another’s weakness, racking up points before the latter can figure out how to counter. In fact, there’s precious little time to make corrections, which is where players find the thrill: bouts are two, three, maybe four minutes long. “You have to coach yourself as you go and counteract what your opponent is doing and how they’re adjusting. And, you’re adjusting all while you’re actually doing it,” says Aaron Collins. “I have to plan my strategy as I go.”
Collins, 42, began fencing in 2013 after watching his young son fence for about a year. Having played competitive sports his entire life, the Bon Secours St. Francis Hospital doctor says he enjoys playing the sport for fun, yet is among the many who relish it as a test of their individual mettle. His coach, Blakeborough, stresses that Knights of Siena train, succeed, and fail as a team. But they fence as individuals.
Blakeborough says most of his peers doubted fencing would fly in the South. He acknowledges football, basketball, and baseball reign supreme in these parts, but he focused on what would make the business work regardless of culture. Surely any place a martial arts school could thrive, a fencing school could do the same. He says parents are often ambivalent about whether to enroll their children in fencing or martial arts until he points out fencing is a college sport, one with scholarships.
As a parent, I, too, consider where this sport will take our family while wondering how to work a red, gold, and black sword into our holiday décor. I suspect this trophy only heightens fencing’s allure, and my husband aims to collect more. However, victory is fleeting in fencing. Two days after his sword-winning performance, he reported that his fellow club members—men, women, and children—had lain him to waste at practice. Of course, I wanted to say touché, but, of course, I did not.
Knights of Siena, 1314 Rutherford Rd, Greenville; (864) 270-6172,