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Flowery Branch takes up fencing
Falcons first to have fencing club in Hall County
Flowery Branch fencing club members Mark Faul, left, and Christopher Nelms, right, practice in the school's cafeteria on Monday. - photo by By Tom Reed
FLOWERY BRANCH — When Jordan Frost walks into the Flowery Branch High cafeteria each Monday afternoon, she goes through a meticulous process. This Flowery Branch High fencing club member puts on protection for her chest and shoulders, a jacket, face mask, pants and a glove.

Then the only female member of the first-year fencing club at the school is joined by 11 males athletes on the team as they proceed to fold up and slide away lunch room tables to make room for practice with Hall County’s only fencing program at the high school level.

Frost is typical of most of the Flowery Branch fencing club members, who are not normally attracted to the traditional team sports. But she was intrigued by the idea of fencing when her friend and teammate Michael Stewart approached the Flowery Branch senior with the idea.

"Fencing is a lot of fun," Frost said. "It’s a great workout for your arms and legs."

Sure, there’s a couple of mental hurdles that have to be overcome to step into the strip — the six-feet-wide, 46-feet-long competition area. Danger is always a part of a sport where you use a carbon steel epee (sword) to try to lunge at and touch your opponent to earn points.

But after getting the first couple bruises out of the way, Frost was eager to step into the action with the boys.

"Fencing is a controlled, safe sport and isn’t a bunch of swashbuckling in the hallways," club coach Gary Di Maggio said. "It’s a great way to learn balance, coordination, timing and good sportsmanship."

Fencing is still a club sport in Georgia high schools. As a result, team members are responsible for providing all equipment and paying a team dues. Di Maggio — who also coaches the club fencing teams at North Gwinnett High and Mill Creek High — is responsible for providing the scoring equipment, which he uses at his business, the North Georgia Fencing Center, in Suwanee. He also gives lessons to the group of newbies at Flowery Branch. Flowery Branch also has a teacher advisor, Charlotte Little, and parent advisor that coordinate the club.

Harrison Saylor, a junior, was the student responsible for bringing this club to Flowery Branch’s campus in September. He’s been a fencing student for three years under Di Maggio, and wanted to see if it could work at the high school level here in Hall County. He said it was the right time to bring the sport into Flowery Branch’s campus, after the US women won three gold medals at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

Saylor first approached Flowery Branch principal Mark Coleman with his idea. He was directed to find a teacher sponsor for its club, which is when he solicited Little. Then he asked Di Maggio to come and teach the basics to those unfamiliar with the sport. Once that was accomplished, Flowery Branch’s fencing club, the 14th in the state, was off and running.

Saylor said the biggest misconception of fencing is that it’s easy. He says reading your opponent and planning your strategy all in a matter of seconds makes it a mental and physical battle.

"It’s like a physical chess match," said Saylor, who is already qualified for the Junior Olympics in February. "We want to get the word out to other schools to get them involved."

Flowery Branch’s fencers are taking part in five tournaments at schools across the Metro Atlanta area this season. Saylor and Frost both qualified on Nov. 15 for the state championships in March.

But not every fencer is expecting to achieve a high level of success. Some are finding a new self-confidence through the sport. One of Flowery Branch’s fencers, Jerry Keaton, expressed apprehension in participating in the first meet at Roswell. He was told by Di Maggio he could watch if he didn’t feel comfortable.

"But he went out there and participated," Di Maggio said. "As soon as it was over, he asked when the next one was."

Scoring for fencing is electronically calculated with a spring-loaded tip to the epee and a system of wiring that connects to a central scoreboard to signal each time a participant has been touched. Generally, each match is divided into pools of four to six people initially. Each participant is trying to see which can put five touches on the opponent first. Then matches are bracketed into direct elimination, where players are try to get 15 touches first until there are only two participants remaining.

Practice for fencing is all about strategy. Bigger, taller athletes aren’t necessarily at an advantage. Being quick with good eye-hand coordination is more apt to lead to success. Fencers describe the strategy involved with the sport using words like lunge, dodge, attack, block and counter.

"You have to think really fast about what you’re going to do all in about a second," freshman Keith Lawson said. "It’s just like any other sport — the more you work, the better you get."

The Flowery Branch club’s next tournament is Feb. 21.

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