Fencing for fun and fitness

From The Three Musketeers to the Pirates of the Caribbean, adventures of swashbuckling sword fighting have always captured people's imaginations.

This article was part of a special report on the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. It was archived in July 2013 and will no longer be reviewed.

Most of us can remember play fighting with broken-off branches as a child, acting out tales from films and stories. For most of us, it's just a bit of child's play and not something we might consider seriously as a sport.

"Fencing suffers from stereotyping," says James Williams, an Olympic and Commonwealth fencing gold medallist. "It's seen as an elitist, snobbish sport, out of reach of 'normal' people."

James, who lives in Huddersfield, is involved in initiatives to take the sport into inner cities to get rid of these stereotypes and improve access to the sport.

He believes there may be a lot of potential talent that could allow Britain to compete at world level.

"If fencing can engage and recruit young people from the inner cities, we have the chance of being a dominant power," he says. "I believe that in the UK we have a big untapped talent pool of young people."

James discovered fencing in his teens during his time in the British Army. Before then, football and rugby were his sports. He'd never considered fencing.

Thanks to an inspirational coach who saw his potential, and his own appetite to master his new sport, James trained hard. Results soon followed. His career highlight was winning both the team gold medal and an individual bronze in the 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

Improving access

"Fencing improves all-round fitness, which makes training an ideal way of keeping fit for all ages and abilities," says James.

Fencing for people in wheelchairs was introduced at the 1960 Paralympic Games in Rome. It now takes place in 24 countries around the world. Britain has won many fencing medals at the Paralympics.

James says: "Certain disabilities are not a disadvantage for fencing. People who are unable to compete in other sports find they can compete with peers on equal terms and often give able-bodied fencers a run for their money."

In learning the skills of attacking and defending with the foil, épée or sabre, fencers develop good co-ordination, balance and flexibility.

The challenge is making the sport more accessible.

"Often young people don't consider the sport as they think it's not for them," says James. "Fortunately, we have a few programmes that are attempting to change this view."

Several community youth fencing programmes have been established around Britain. Some are run as evening classes and others are organised within sports centres, youth clubs, schools and colleges.

One project – the Camden Fencing Club in north London – offers foil and sabre fencing at beginner, recreational and competitive levels, for ages seven to 17.

"They have more than 150 people fencing in this school, with top-level coaches," says James. "It's a sight to see." 

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