SANTA ANA — For those who practice it, fencing is a form of physical chess.
Each move is carefully plotted. Possible scenarios are planned. Defensive strategies are at hand, should an opponent make an unexpected move.
Tucked away off busy Harbor Boulevard, South Coast Fencing Center sits in a row of white office buildings, not unlike a pawn at the ready.
Inside, the centuries-old sport lives among the 40 or so athletes who pass through the club’s doors on a given day.
Like its athletes, each weapon has its own personality. The saber is aggressive. The foil traces back to nobility. With an épée, anything goes.
Instructor Missag Hagop Parseghian is an épée and foil person.
“As I always like to say, a well-armed society is a polite society,” Parseghian joked.
Among those at the club who are drawn to the sport are engineers and scientists, he said. He himself develops new cancer therapies, and others in the club study molecular biology, physics and engineering.
For 15-year-old Lucia Procopio, a student at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, fencing honed her discipline. A musician who plays viola, Procopio said the rhythm of fencing is similar to that of music. She says fencing changes “how you approach things in general.”
Braden Saito, a 16-year-old student at Irvine’s University High School, said the hobby helped his problem-solving.
The basic principle of the sport speaks to other aspects of life: “thinking under pressure to find a solution,” in Braden’s words.
Before fencing became a codified martial art hundreds of years ago, bludgeoning was a popular means of self defense, Parseghian said.
“Where’s the sport in that?” he joked.
Along with the crusades came thinner, sharper weaponry more effective at injuring an opponent. Scoring reflects the objective of aiming for vital organs — at least with foil. In épée, the entire body is fair game.
With saber, slashing with the edge of the weapon is the preferred means of attack. Its methodology dates back to the days when mounted men charged one another, working to hurt each other but not the valuable horses.
To this day, those who fence wear white gear, but the tradition of blunting a weapon with red chalk to mark points on an opponent has long passed. Now electronic buttons at the point of a foil or épée keep score.
Despite its bloody origins, modern fencing is far less gory than it once was, according to Soren Thompson, an athletic director for the U.S. Fencing Assn.
"[The sport] used to have some people stabbed through the body, but equipment is really good right now,” Thompson said. “It’s a safe sport.”
Now, many injuries consist of common athletic aches, including knee injuries or injuries to the hand, Thompson said. There have been no deaths in U.S. fencing since 1892, according to Parseghian.
“People find there’s more injuries occurring in tennis, with tennis elbow and such, than in fencing,” he said.
Unlike other sports, where performance peaks with youth and physical prowess, fencing athletes can continue to thrive in outwitting their opponents.
Parseghian notes, “You’re not washed up at the age of 25, like with some other sports.”
“Fencing is very much what you do with what you have,” Thompson said. “You can create advantages. Figuring out how you’re going to approach each match is what people really enjoy.”
Originating at UC Irvine in 1999, the South Coast Fencing Center soon parted ways with the university and moved to Laguna Niguel, and then to Tustin; but after about two years the club outgrew its 2,000-square-foot space there.
Eventually it found its home in Santa Ana, near Sunflower Avenue and Harbor, where next year it will celebrate 15 years. Founders hope to one day turn over the keys to the club to the youngsters who practice there.
“We want this to be a permanent fixture in the Orange County landscape,” Parseghian said.