Parents do not, as a rule, encourage fighting among their children. Particularly one-on-one dueling with long pointy sticks. And yet, there was Mary Beth MacLaren last week in Austin, Texas, cheering on her 11-year-old son Rob as he engaged in exactly that type of combat. Of course, when Rob lost a bout at the U.S. Fencing Association's national championships, she would have been upset if he hadn't calmly taken off his mask and shaken his partner's hand. After all, Rob has been trained in the etiquette of the ancient sport since he started fencing at age 5.
At a time when good manners among star athletes can be hard to find, fencing--a sport that values strategy over size and sportsmanship over personal glory--has struck a chord with a growing number of parents and their kids. An estimated 200,000 children as young as six have tried fencing, lunging and slashing at birthday parties as well as at fencing clubs and tournaments across the U.S. Since 1996 the number of registered members under 20 of the U.S. Fencing Association, the sport's governing body, has tripled, to 9,000. More than a third are girls. "It's graceful; it requires skill, strength and concentration," says Michael Massik, executive director of the USFA. "We don't have enough instructors for kids at clubs to meet the demand."
But with Shaq and Kobe to idolize, not to mention all those loud wrestlers, what's the draw of a sport whose heroes are thousands of years old? Modern fencing isn't even as glamorous looking as it was in the movies Zorro and The Three Musketeers, although the high-tech electronic-scoring devices have a certain Nintendo-era appeal. Plus the modern gear makes it a lot safer, and that may be the key for parents. Weapons are covered at the tip, and fencers wear meshed masks and, often, plastic chest plates. The kids seem to enjoy the intricate rules of each of the three games: foil, epee and saber. They have to land the tip of the weapon (in saber, the blade is fair game too) on specific areas of their opponent while protecting their own target areas. Fans call it "physical chess."
So while the athletic benefits can be considerable--fencers must cross-train rigorously to balance muscle development in their arms and legs--many kids sign on for the unique intellectual challenge. It's not unusual for a skinny kid to beat a beefy hulk. Alyson McCormick, whose son Sam, 11, trains at Metropolis Fencing, a school in New York City, recalls fretting when Sam was about to spar with a burlier opponent. "But he said, 'Don't worry, Mom. He does the same thing every time. I know what I need to do,'" she recalls. After losing the first few points, Sam figured out how to adjust his game to win. As well as a confidence booster for the less brawny kids or those disinclined to team sports, it can be a healthy way to let off steam. "It's a combat sport, but fast moving like a video game," says Michael Marx, a coach at New York's Rochester Fencing Center--home of three out of four women on this year's Olympic team. "And you don't have to have your head knocked off."