Printed on: October 31, 2013

Thrust and parry: Middle School adds fencing

By KIRSTEN JOHNSON
kjohnson@postregister.com

RIGBY -- In most physical education classes, students swing badminton rackets, toss basketballs and kick soccer balls.

Not at Rigby Middle School.

Before class Oct. 22, 28 students in Julie Theobald's PE class suited up in heavy, protective chest pieces, armed themselves with rubber-tipped plastic swords called foils and lowered masks over their faces before engaging in heated swordplay.

No, they weren't in battle. In fact, the teens' sword fighting during the school day was perfectly acceptable.

The class was part of the middle school's new fencing program, introduced into its PE curriculum this fall. Since its debut, roughly 800 students have taken part in the centuries-old sport.

"(Fencing) has been a really good experience," 14-year-old Bridger Barnes said. "It's helped me express myself more. It's given me confidence. I think it can help you make friends and help you with your self-esteem. That's how it helped me."

In September, Rigby Middle School became part of Fencing in the Schools, a national program started in 2011 by Olympic silver medalist Tim Morehouse. The program adds introductory fencing into schools around the country.

Rigby Middle School is one of four schools in Idaho with the program, Morehouse said. Nationwide, he said about 30 schools have added the program.

"Fencing was basically a sport that changed my life," he said. "I've had the opportunity to go to three Olympic Games, and I really wanted to give back to the sport. It's an amazing sport, but not a lot of kids have the opportunity to do it. I want it to be something that every kid in America has the opportunity to do."

Last school year, Rigby Middle School Vice Principal David Meyer, a recreational fencer, headed efforts to bring the program to Rigby because he was looking to add something different from traditional athletics.

"Fencing is one of those sports where kids learn to treat their opponent in a responsible, dignified way," he said. "It helps you think and move quickly. It's as much mental as it is physical."

He paid for the program through a $2,100 national grant from a program called Fuel Up to Play 60. The program, launched by the National Dairy Council and NFL in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, aims to incorporate nutrition and physical activity into the school day.

The grant is used at Rigby in two ways, Meyer said. Half of the money goes toward funding the fencing program, and the other half goes to fund a new nutritional smoothie program at the school. Meyer said he plans to reapply for the grant each year. If successful, he said the cost of the fencing program will be paid off after three years.

Fencing proponents said the sport is misunderstood.

Dusty Johnson, owner of the Fox Fencing club in Idaho Falls, says the sport has a better safety rating for high school sports than both golf and badminton.

"A lot of people look at fencing as, they have swords and that's extremely dangerous," Johnson said. "The sword intimidates a lot of people."

Johnson said beginners, including Rigby Middle School students, use plastic swords and equipment. Those who use the stiffer-blade swords used in Olympic fencing are well-trained at keeping correct distance, he said.

"These students have the safest type of weapon there is out there," he said.

Meyer said he's optimistic the program will continue for years to come. If all goes well, he said, Rigby High School may also look into adding a fencing program.

"It's a very affordable way to get kids introduced," he said. "I think it will continue to become more and more popular. The kids here are really excited about it."