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The Observer Paper 09/29/14

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Fencers Marina Hattan, left, and Brandon Clark practice at EOU's Ackerman gym Sunday. (Dick Mason/The Observer).
Fencers Marina Hattan, left, and Brandon Clark practice at EOU's Ackerman gym Sunday. (Dick Mason/The Observer).

- Dick Mason

- The Observer

Fencing, unbeknownst to many outsiders, is an intellectual activity, one sometimes called physical chess.

La Grande fencer John DeVillier, though, views his sport differently. He compares it to a card game.

"It's physical poker. There is no betting, but in fencing you do a lot of bluffing and feigning, trying to manipulate your opponents into doing what you want them to do. You take chances and risk something for a payoff,'' said DeVillier, a La Grande High School freshman.

DeVillier is a member of a local fencing club sponsored by the City of La Grande. The club meets Sundays from 4 to 6 p.m. in the Ackerman gym. The gym floor becomes part chessboard, part poker card table as fencers hone their skills.

The youths are mastering a sport often mistakenly labeled by the general public.

"The biggest misconception is that fencing is a martial art'' connected to self-defense, DeVillier said. "It has nothing to do with self-defense. It is a descendant of straight dueling.''

The club has about 15 members, most high school age and younger. The skill and enthusiasm the club members exhibit at practices is a credit to the legacy of former La Grande resident Bill Kullman. A highly regarded fencing coach, Kullman started the club about four years ago and led it until moving to Central Oregon last year. Kullman's move dealt the club a bad card, leaving it without a coach since there are no other known fencing instructors in La Grande.

The club's young fencers are thus teaching one another while supervised by parents.

"We help each other. We're not afraid to correct each other. As a group we owe it to each other,'' DeVillier said.

Kullman now lives 40 miles north of Bend. Still, he travels to La Grande for some practices — and coaches the club's fencers at tournaments.

Sylvan Tovar, a La Grande High School freshman, expresses similar sentiments.

"(Kullman) is a friend. He's still my coach. He's just living somewhere else,'' Tovar said.

Tovar and DeVillier are among the club's most promising fencers. The two qualified for a Junior Olympic fencing competition in Denver, which they took part in last weekend.

Tovar, DeVillier and all youngsters involved in fencing are the sport's future in Kullman's eyes. The coach expects most of the La Grande club's members to be fencing for decades to come.

"Fencing is a lifetime sport. If you learn to fence at 10, you will fence until you are 70,'' Kullman said.

The coach stresses that people in the sport tend to be uncommonly devoted to fencing.

"There is loyalty to the blade."

The coach speaks from experience. He is 68 and has been fencing since 1962. He said older, experienced fencers hold their own with younger competitors because their increased understanding of the sport's intricacies compensates for slowing reflexes.

Kullman, like DeVillier, disagrees with the assertion that fencing is a martial art.

"It's really an elaborate game of tag,'' he said — a quick-thinking and intellectual game of tag.

Kullman and his La Grande students emphasize that you must understand what to look for in an opponent during the heat of competition.

"You have to determine your opponent's strong and weak points while engaged,'' Tovar said.

In fencing competitions, electronic sensing equipment is used so that opponent touches can be easily detected and scored. The

La Grande club does not have any such equipment so its practices are dry, meaning that no electronics are involved. This presents a challenge, DeVillier said, since fencers do not get a sense during dry practices of which touches are hard enough to register during competition.

Although fencing descended from duels, the objective in the sport is to touch, not hurt, an opponent. Kullman emphasizes that the sport is very safe because of the protective clothing and masks worn during practices and competition.

La Grande club members must travel to Portland or Boise for most of their competitions. Traveling to such events is essential if one is to improve, DeVillier said. He explained that being exposed to other fencers allows one to learn about different styles.

"When you see people's styles, you adapt and morph into your own,'' DeVillier said.

La Grande's fencing club is open to everyone. Equipment and protective clothing is available at the sessions. The fee is $40 per three-month quarter, or $5 to drop in for one session.

For information on the club call Lyn Tovar at 963-5628.


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