En garde! They’re coming!
Sports you know nothing about and never cared about are heading, at least somewhat, for mainstream treatment. It happens every four years when the Summer Olympics rolls into our living rooms.
The opening ceremonies are today, and fencing begins on Saturday, joining obscure events like badminton, trampoline and handball, each of which falls under the mental headline of “Who are these people?”
In Concord, Tracy Nabstedt, 70, is the face of fencing. Has been for two decades. He recently handed control of the Concord Fencing Club to a group led by Shawn Brooks, now the program director, head coach and part owner.
The club is located down Hall Street, mixed in with other properties owned by the Concord Business Center. It’s an off-the-beaten-path section of the city, perfect for an off-the-beaten-path sport such as this one.
Brooks and Nabstedt, however, are passionate about the sport, just like many of you are about baseball and the Red Sox.
“I go home after I’m done here and I’m on YouTube watching fencing videos,” said Brooks, who works full time as a sales manager of high end building materials in Bedford. “My girlfriend is driven completely insane, and if I’m not watching coaching videos, I’m watching fencing videos or something that will make me better at we do.”
Brooks is a really good fencer. His bronze medal, earned at the 1999 United States Fencing Association’s Summer Nationals in Charlotte, N.C., hangs high on the club’s wall, above the 50 or so other medals he’s won in various other smaller tournaments.
Nabstedt, meanwhile, has the sport running through his veins. In fact, he looks like a fencer, noble and regal, with a perfectly trimmed white beard, perfect posture and piercing eyes that told me I’d lose if we fenced.
He brought fencing to the city 20 years ago, using the Concord High School cafeteria to teach his students. He needed to be creative to keep the sport alive, so he traveled around and taught it where ever he could.
He opened shop at places like Beaver Meadow School, Broken Ground School, St. Paul’s School, Coe-Brown Academy, Strafford Elementary School, Phillips Exeter Academy and a hotel in Madison, packing and unpacking his car, spreading his knowledge.
“My dad was a fencer and that got me interested,” Nabstedt said. “It’s a terrific way to be active. If you want to run around and get sweaty, fencing is a great way. It’s cardiovascular conditioning, a terrific way to be active.”
The current club opened in 1998 and has tripled in size since, with a high enrollment of about 100 students. The Summer Games grab their attention.
“There’s definitely a buzz,” Brooks said. “We don’t see droves of new students, but we do get some that enroll after seeing it on TV.”
Brooks and Nabstedt staged a bout for me. First, each suited up, with jacket, plastic chest protector, gloves and mesh mask that made me think of beekeeping.
I got it started:
En garde (On guard)!
Standing sideways, weapons pointed at opponent, their feet began an endless dance that Fred Astaire would have loved, a rhythm of movement, back and forth, attacking and retreating, with blades thrusting and deflecting, and upper bodies shifting like boxers playing defense.
The weapons - sabre, epee, foil – scored in lightning-quick fashion, and only an electronic beep caused by attached wiring told me when the tip or side of the blade had touched somewhere on the body.
Nabstedt stopped after less than a minute to explain to visitors the subtleties of what was happening. He and Brooks both removed their masks. Both were breathing heavily. Both were sweating a lot.
Brooks reflected on his bronze medal performance in the nationals 17 years ago, saying he had to be helped to the sideline after a bout because he had failed to hydrate enough.
“My body was rebelling at that point,” Brooks said. “I was cramping up all over, so I could barely hold the weapon at that point. By time I got done after the bout I was finished. I dropped to the ground.
“During the first 20 seconds, you’ll know if you’re in shape or not.”
All the stories, all the history, all the medals high on the walls (Nabstedt’s were removed once he retired), stem from the Concord club tucked away in nowhere land.
There’s room for seven fencing strips, which, after opening in 998, has expanded twice, in 2001 and ‘05. The place is cavernous, the ceiling high like a grand theater, and it’s obvious that Nabstedt has created something special within the fencing community.
“He’s great with someone putting the uniform on for the first time,” said Brooks, who began learning from Nabstedt in 1996, when he was 22. “He’s very well known, not only Concord, but in Maine and Vermont and some areas of Massachusetts. Everyone knows who Tracy is in the fencing community. He’s hugely instrumental in pushing the sport.”
The United States has grown in fencing, from joke to powerhouse over the past 20 years. Our best Olympics was the 2008 Games in Beijing, where we won six medals.
“We needed a youth program like every other nation,” Nabstedt said. “The Russians, Italians, Germans, Spanish, all start kids off at an early age. This is the end result, where Americans are bringing home the bacon. When we show up, other nations say, ‘Uh-oh, we’ve got to fence the Americans.’ ”
Olympic fencing runs from Saturday through Aug. 13. Interest won’t compare to swimming and gymnastics and track and field, but our local duo expects some bouts to be televised, outside prime time.
They’ll be watching.
“I will be recording it as much as possible at home,” Brooks said. “Some will be live, some will be taped. I can’t wait.”