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What it's like for a dad to raise a fencing prodigy
One dad's struggle to find a niche for his son leads him to fencing classes. - photo by Peter Thunell
Oh, no, I think to myself. Tiger moms.

As I sit down to watch my sons first day of fencing, Im acutely aware this may be karate classes all over again.

When signing my son up for fencing, I kind of assumed most of the other students would be in the same boat we were, stabbing blindly around (pun intended) trying to find the right activity for our boy. You want your kids to have something they can call their own.

Fencing seemed like a logical thing you would try after soccer, basketball, karate, tennis and so many other activities havent worked out. In fact, I saw an added benefit of fencing: You could tell people you fence and they would have to take that information on face value. If a kid tells another kid he plays basketball, the other kid tosses him a ball and says, "prove it." Fencing, though, seemed like the fake-girlfriend-in-Canada of sports. People may doubt you, but they have to respect the possibility.

My son, who is musically talented, hasnt had the best run in sports. Dont get me wrong, Im not one of those dads. Im the guy who learned how to fight watching West Side Story (mercifully, Ive yet to be in a fight so I havent had to try my kick, ball change, reach to the sky while kicking one leg, then punch, combo yet). I couldn't care less if hes good at sports, but I also remember what it was like to grow up as a boy and having some sports going for you just plain helps.

The sad frustration of sports is they all generally rely on focus, coordination and strength. Theyre just variations on that theme. So even when you skip around from sport to sport, the same kids tend to pick up everything with ease, and the kids who struggle tend to keep struggling.

Fencing came to mind when I saw my son spinning around my wifes old color guard equipment. (She swears color guard was the coolest thing at American Fork High. Im suspect.) Now Im a progressive dad, but given my druthers Id really rather not have my boy swinging a flag unless hes claiming Mars for the USA or its at the end of Les Miserables. So I asked him if he wanted to try fencing. He shrugged his shoulders, said "sure," and now here I am.

When we enter the fencing gym/converted storefront, I gotta admit, fencing just looks cool. The masks are positively Star Wars-ian. And thousands of years have conditioned our brains to recognize the inherent coolness of sword fighting, no matter how hard those dudes LARPing with wooden broadswords at the college quad have tried to make it uncool.

At the far end, two pupils take turns attacking each other while, for reasons Im not clear on, tethered to their respective sides. They look like two dogs barking and charging at each other only to be yanked back yipping by their owners.

Then I turn and see the Tiger Moms Im worried about. I see their kids out there attentively listening to the instructor, following his instructions explicitly. I can already see their future Harvard applications with fencing surrounded by debate club, humanitarian trips to Haiti and first-chair cello in all-state orchestra.

Already I can see my boy is bugging the instructor. Its his first day in the sport and already he wants to do his own moves. Hes like the fencing version of Scott from Strictly Ballroom, but without the years of instruction and practice to hone those moves.

While the kids are practicing with rubber swords, my boy falls to the ground, does a forward somersault and tries to poke the bewildered kid in front of him. After being told he cant do that, his next move is to swing the sword overhead like he is creating a tornado. I know my boy well enough that when I see him doing this from across the room, I know a tornado is exactly what he is hoping to accomplish. The tornado ends with a flurry of wild swings at his opponent and another sigh and explanation from the instructor.

This poor instructor. Already hes had to spend more time with my kid than the other focused, quickly adapting kids way more time. And not in the this kid is a natural, I must nurture this talent so that he reaches his potential as possibly the greatest ever kind of way.

No, this is a steady stream of damage control. As a parent, you can feel his exasperation from his slumped shoulders and the way he looks off into the distance the third time he has to correct my son. This is not my first time seeing a coach slowly driven crazy by my child. Not my first rodeo. (Note to self: Maybe we try rodeo if fencing doesnt pan out. I mean bull riding is only eight seconds, the very definition of a short attention span sport.)

Maybe things arent as bad as I think, but I can almost just hear the instructors inner dialogue, I didnt defeat Sergi Borshnovoch at the 88 grand championships to put up with this garbage. Ive always felt kind of bad for those who excel at a nonmoney sport. Its like being granted a monkeys paw wish (get what you want but with a disastrous twist).

You get really good at gymnastics, fencing, ping pong, something like that. So good that you inevitably end up opening your own gym. Then you realize you are renting a space all day every day so you have to fill out your schedule, which means ceaseless wave after wave of newbies. This mass education of the clueless warriors like my son has to take a toll.

My boy is now calling out his own points even though Im 98 percent sure there hasnt been any instruction yet as to how they get points. If hes shouting numbers as a strategy to confuse the taller girl he is sparring with, its working. She keeps looking around bewildered as if to say, Were not supposed to be doing that, right? My boys style of nutso swinging the rubber sword reminds me of how they say if you go to prison, in your first fight just act crazy because no one wants to fight the crazy guy.

For some reason, his extra effort has produced a spark of fatherly pride that temporarily overwhelms my exasperation and logic. I decide to go with it and fully put my dad goggles on, fantasizing of the day when my boy ushers in a new style of fencing. A style that utilizes power rolls and wild sword stylings. Hell be like the Fosbury Flop of fencing.

At the 2028 Olympics, as he stands atop the gold medal podium, I will know it all started here. Right here. I need to soak up this momentous occasion since someday I will have to recount it to the future fencing historians at Fencing Illustrated. I could tell from that first day in the Las Vegas strip mall, he was destined for greatness. Never had a doubt.

Reality comes crashing back as I see the instructor run over to my boy admonishing him that you can't flip the sword in the air to yourself midfight no matter how cool it looked.

When the class was over, I asked him how he liked it. That was fun," he said. "Can I come back next week? Fatherly pride inexplicably swells within me again. Maybe the 2028 Olympics is a little far-fetched, but 2032?

That seems about right.
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