Gazette journalist has a stab at fencing after being inspired by Olympics
She always hated playing sport, but Gazette reporter Chloe Mayer fell in love with the Games. Now she has big fencing plans and exercise-dodger Chloe is going for gold.
I was always the one feigning illness during PE at school.
No sooner would I get my kit on than I’d be overcome with a mysterious pain in my leg (“I should probably get that checked out, Sir”) or I’d feel strangely dizzy (“Maybe I better sit down and eat some chocolate, Miss?”).
I’ve remained a staunch exercise-dodger in my adult life too. In fact, I was quite proud of it.
But then something happened to me.
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At the age of 32, I decided to become an Olympic athlete.
I was dreading the Games coming to London, but then they put it on the telly. And it was quite exciting, moving even. I got a last-minute ticket to the Paralympics and discovered I was a passionate Mexican waver.
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Your running and jumping and throwing, all that malarkey, that’s not really me. What really captured my imagination was the fencing.
It was brilliant – graceful and violent at the same time, and their outfits made them look like particularly well-dressed robots.
In a moment of Google madness I signed up for an intensive beginners’ course at the London Fencing Club, which runs classes throughout Hackney and Islington.
“I’m pretty sure I can make it as an Olympic fencer,” I told my colleagues, friends, and family, who politely suggested I should go and lie down.
It’s true I had some doubts when the fencing master, Tim Gadaski, emailed me with a reading list of books about the sport and suggested I start running daily, followed by ten minutes of squats, to prepare for the course.
But I knew I’d made the right decision when I arrived for the first of my two three-hour sessions at the Finsbury Leisure Centre, in Norman Street, and met Tim in person.
He was doing the best eyebrow/moustache work I’ve ever seen. He actually looked like a musketeer. And because he’s Russian, he had the whole accent thing going on too. I wanted to ask him to wear a cape, but thought it might be inappropriate.
I didn’t have time to dwell on my sworded fantasies because Tim gave a fascinating talk on the history of fencing while passing around his collection of swords – some of which were hundreds of years old.
He was really knowledgeable and passionate about his subject and it was a great way to start. We learned about the three fencing disciplines, with the three types of sword – foil, epee, and sabre.
We’d be learning the sabre, which is fastest and most dynamic weapon. Anything above the waist, including the head, is fair game and you can “cut” your opponent with your sword, as though you’re slashing them, as well as “thrust” forward, as if you’re stabbing them.
The end of the sword was bent down though, so it wasn’t sharp, and we were well-protected in modern safety gear.
There were 20 of us on the course, a pretty even mix of men and women aged from the mid-20s to mid-40s, and it turned out I wasn’t the only one who’d been inspired by the Olympics.
Self-employed social work consultant Sheree Kane, 43, of Walthamstow, told me: “There was a nationwide campaign to get people back into sport after the Olympics, called the ‘Join In’ campaign. And I did a taster session here because of that.
“I enjoyed it so much I decided to do this course. So I really am part of the Olympic legacy!”
It was time for us to warm-up, and another instructor took us through the paces. He made us squat down almost to the floor and walk along like that across the width of the sports hall. That didn’t feel good at all.
We did some footwork exercises to teach us the basics and we were all sweating profusely before we donned the proper fencing outfits and armed ourselves.
Then it was time to fight.
Tim was quite witty and made lots of jokes which made the class really good fun. He was a patient teacher too, and showed us new moves and demonstrated them before letting us put them into practice during fights with each other.
Tim, who says he trained an (unnamed) Russian president’s bodyguards how to fence before moving to London, founded the club 10 years ago and today it boasts 300 members.
“We’re probably the biggest club in the country, by numbers,” he said. “We were growing, but the financial crisis affected everything. But after the Olympics we had an extra number of requests – three times more than usual.
“We have five beginners’ courses at the moment and they’re all packed.
“I hope it will continue, because it’s good for us.”
He praised the health benefits of the sport, pointing out it’s particularly good for toning up bums and thighs.
“And you can do it for general fitness instead of the gym,” he added. “It’s much more interesting than lifting weights - and you can’t stop during a fight so you keep pushing yourself.”
The next day, Sunday, I found out what he meant. I was so sore I was almost in tears. Every muscle in my body hurt, but my thighs were in agony. I actually whimpered every time I had to go up or down the stairs. In fact, I was in pain until Friday, so I only just recovered in time for the second, final session.
To be fair, other people on the course told me they recovered much faster than I did, after just a day or two – I suspect years without any exercise hindered me there. After my second class, I only suffered slight muscle aches the next day.
But there were four fewer people at the second session, so I wonder whether the course was more intensive than some people anticipated.
During the final class, last Saturday, we got stuck straight into fighting after the warm-up and ended the course with a tournament in which we all fought each other to get through to a final.
Amazingly, I won the women’s category and was presented with a gold (coloured) medal as the rest of the class clapped and cheered. Well, they didn’t actually cheer, but they probably were inside.
I thought I might weep when I sang God Save the Queen, but sadly I didn’t get the opportunity because everyone was leaving.
I’d been joking about entering the Olympics, but now it occurred to me I might be genuinely gifted. However, when I showed off my prize at work on Monday, there were spiteful insinuations the outcome had somehow been rigged.
In fact, Tim told me I’d triumphed because women are often a bit “timid” when they start fighting for the first time.
“You’re not timid!” he said. “That’s quite important, so that’s why you won.”
He’s not kidding. The red mist came down and I was out for blood. You’re supposed to say a civilized “touch�” when you’re hit, but I kept screaming: “Don’t mess with me! You’re going down!”
There wasn’t much skill involved; I was just thrashing around wildly with the sword.
But, for me at least, the end of the course had an extremely epee ending: My first gold medal.
See you in Rio.
• Chloe’s course cost �150, although the London Fencing Club frequently offers discounts so check the website for up-do-date prices. The club, which also runs fencing lessons for children, offers a variety of classes and courses in Hackney and Islington, and venues include Finsbury Leisure Centre, in Norman Street, and Central Foundation Boys’ School, Cowper Street, Shoreditch. For more information, visit www.londonfencingclub.co.uk.