Oswaldo Ortega patrols the cafeteria encouraging his team. He uses a mix of humor, prodding and teaching to bring out the best in his fencers. It’s clear that Ortega is in his element teaching the centuries-old sport that his students are embracing.
It’s a Wednesday at Flowery Branch High, and the former Venezuelan national fencing coach is trying to make sure the 31 members of the school’s club team are paying attention to the details.
The club, at its highest membership level in its seven years, offers an athletic outlet for students who may or may not have tried other sports and were looking for something different. It all comes with a passionate coach who jumps right in the middle of the kids to make his points.
“He has as much fun as the kids do,” said Phyllis Pizzino, the team’s sponsor and a history teacher at Flowery Branch.
Ortega said he feels like a friend to the students, a part of their group imploring them to “follow me” in learning how to excel in the sport.
“This is the best part,” Ortega said.
Flowery Branch’s team is the largest in the six-team On Guard High School Fencing League, which also includes Lanier, Brookwood, Mill Creek, North Gwinnett and Peachtree Ridge. Ortega coaches the Brookwood team, as well. Flowery Branch will host the league’s season-ending tournament in February.
Danielle Mathis, a senior captain who specializes in foil and epee, first took part in the sport back in seventh grade at Mulberry Community Center along with current teammate Zach Richards, also a senior captain. Both have been on the high school team since their freshman year, and Richards even practiced some with the group when he was in eighth grade.
Mathis particularly appreciates Ortega’s approach, which can involve having a fencer work on the same thing for 20 minutes with only minor tweaking until the student gets it right.
“He’s not strict,” Mathis said. “But he makes you want to accomplish what he pushes you for because he’s very supportive and very persistent.”
Mathis said cardio is the toughest part of the sport. Ortega has the fencers run, walk and then run again to simulate the changes from high to low heart rate and back that come with fencing. But more than anything, Mathis thrives on the adrenaline rush.
“You’re constantly on a high of attacking, defending, making sure that you go for the point,” Mathis said.
Richards, who does epee and foil, appreciates the strategic element of fencing. He can’t just think about what he’s going to do. It’s also important to anticipate an opponent’s reaction and how he’ll respond to that.
The three weapons used in fencing are foil, epee and saber. Foil, which features a small handle, is when fencers gets points for striking the chest of their opponents. In saber, which is a slashing weapon, they can get points for striking anywhere above the waist. With epee, which has a large bottom, the target is the whole body.
Ava Alabiso, a junior who competes in saber, said she had never really enjoyed sports. But she thought fencing looked interesting and fun, and she had seen it in the Olympics.
Flowery Branch has three girls on its 31-person team, which includes Mathis from Johnson High. Flowery Branch is the only school to offer a fencing program in Hall County.
While fencing can be seen by some girls as a “boys club,” Alabiso disagrees.
“I don’t know why there’s not as many girls because this is a really fun sport,” Alabiso said. “It’s a really empowering sport for girls. It’s really powerful. It makes you feel like fighting.”
Richards also competes in USA Fencing events through Ortega’s club, Fencing Star Academy in Marietta. It’s a good way to get noticed as he has aspirations of fencing at Kennesaw State or Georgia Southern.
As a senior leader, Richards is always trying to help his younger teammates reach their potential.
“I definitely put a lot more pressure on the juniors, sometimes a lot more than I should, but it’s also helping them improve,” Richards said.
Alabiso has taken part in two tournaments outside of the school team, including one at the University of Georgia. She took a silver medal in one of those events. She usually fences against the same six or seven girls with the school team, and the other tournaments gave her a different experience. She fenced against a middle school student and a 60-year-old man in the UGA tournament.
The ability to continue in the sport for decades is appealing to Alabiso, who would love to fence in college. Georgia is her ideal destination.
Harrison Saylor, a 2010 graduate, started the team when he was at Flowery Branch before going on to fence at Georgia Tech. Now he is an assistant coach for the Flowery Branch team and also coaches at UGA. He sees an increased focus from the current team on improvement from when he was in school.
“These kids, they actually want to get better and compete on higher levels,” Saylor said. “And I think that’s a really, really great goal. The fact that I can help them get to that next level is fantastic.”
Saylor had tried basketball and baseball, but he felt more comfortable with fencing.
“It was very accessible,” Saylor said. “Anyone could learn to do it.”
Ortega said many fencers train four hours a day. Having two hours each Wednesday with the Flowery Branch students, he has to make the most of the time.
Alabiso enjoys watching freshmen progress quickly with the program.
“At the beginning, they’re scared and they don’t want to hit people. They’re scared to block,” Alabiso said. “By the end of the year, they’re doing great at tournaments, beating everybody.”
Alabiso trains against boys on her team because she’s the only girl who does saber at Flowery Branch. She enjoys getting those opportunities to show her skills against the guys.
Much of the growth for the fencers comes down to having a sizable group of friends who are chasing the same goals.
“It’s very nice because it’s almost like a family sometimes,” Mathis said. “Sure, there’s always times when things aren’t serious. But everybody still tries to succeed and tries to push toward one goal together. It’s an individual sport, but it’s a group sport, as well.”
One of Mathis’ favorite moments came when she had a chance to face former captain Giselle Teeple and beat her at Flowery Branch’s tournament. She said the old friends “had a blast” fencing against each other. Mathis hopes to compete in some USAF events in college. She plans to attend the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega.
Richards has a friendly rivalry with Lanier captain Jack Samuels. They have finished 1-2 in the epee in this school year’s first two tournaments, with Samuels winning the first and Richards prevailing the second time around. Richards also took bronze in foil at the second tournament.
Alabiso has won gold in saber at both tournaments, while Mathis took silver in epee and foil at the first event and silver in foil and bronze in epee at the second event.
Ortega said he thanks God for the opportunity to coach. He has been teaching fencing in the United States for 17 years, imparting what he learned while training in Paris years ago.
Ortega appreciates the way fencing helps its athletes by strengthening their focus, relaxation, coordination and control inside and outside of the sport. Alabiso can attest to that.
“I remember when I first started, I was really scared. Even just starting high school, it was really hard,” Alabiso said. “But then joining a team and joining a sport that gives you that confidence and that sort of power to go through school knowing that ‘hey, I have a sword in my hand and I can beat all these guys and I can go through and I’m playing this sport that’s been around for ages and I’m good at it,’ it really helps you just in life in general and building up your confidence.”