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Genesis with a point

Fencing instructor Tom Martin coaches students through a practice bout Tuesday at his Port Orchard fencing studio.  - Greg Skinner
Fencing instructor Tom Martin coaches students through a practice bout Tuesday at his Port Orchard fencing studio.
— image credit: Greg Skinner

The genesis of his introduction to the sport is difficult to pinpoint.

Tom Martin, who runs Kitsap Fencing Center in Port Orchard, said it might have started when he was a student in the early 1990s at Olympic College. As he navigated through the course catalog, he noticed a listing for fencing. An avid baseball and football fan, Martin was intrigued by the sport that is one of a quartet featured in every modern Olympic Games.

But, the obscurity of the sport in the United States quickly became an issue. Martin signed up for the class each quarter he attended OC – and every time, the course was canceled because of insufficient registration.

Martin, 38, was undaunted. When he transferred in 1993 to Central Washington University, where he studied English and anthropology, he again saw an opportunity to take up fencing. Registration at CWU was not a concern, but the sport’s novelty created challenges in Ellensburg, as well.

“My instructor at Central Washington University only took a couple of classes himself,” Martin said. “I surpassed what the coach there had to offer.”

He wanted more.

Through the fencing classes at CWU, Martin befriended Aaron Page, who also graduated from South Kitsap High School in 1991, and Kenny Nopens. The trio would cram themselves and their equipment into Page’s 1985 Buick Somerset Regal for tournaments throughout the Northwest — and the country. The driving time was divided, but the manual labor was not. Martin said the vehicle was in poor condition and would not start in idle. After setting the transmission in neutral, Martin said he pushed the Buick until it reached 11 mph and the driver cranked the engine.

Martin’s friends would wake him from sleep to do that at stoplights, where the engine occasionally would die, for the more than 1,900-mile drive from the hills of Ellensburg through the Great Plains en route to Chicago. On another trip to Bellingham, Parks said the tournament was delayed 30 minutes to allow the trio to arrive after the Buick repeatedly broke down.

Martin said the push toward prominence continued as he became one of 18 students to qualify for the Summer National Championships. Martin and his peers had to pay their own way, but they fundraised enough to send about half of the qualifiers to that event.

“Central Washington University didn’t really take us seriously the first year,” Martin said.

But he said administrators noticed and provided a university-owned van and a stipend for gas the following year. The university’s program now is a club sport that is a member of the U.S. Fencing Association.

Martin continued with the sport after leaving CWU — he was certified to coach in 1996 by the USFA — but also was busy with work that ranged from general contracting to being a satellite technician.

“I decided the real world stinks,” Martin said. “If I’m going to sink, I’m going to do it myself.”

Enter Kitsap Fencing Center.

Martin, who continued to participate in the sport as an athlete while working, decided to translate his passion into a career. He started in September with a training and coaching space at the Port Orchard Armory before moving into a 1,300-square-foot facility at 2505 Mile Hill Drive, where he teaches classes four days a week for both adults and youths.

When people hear about his profession, Martin said the first question usually involves chain-link fences, but he is confident that he can build his operation into a successful business.

“I’ve never seen a fencing program fail,” he said.

Martin said the biggest challenge is promotion. While he has spent most of his life in Kitsap County, his business is new — and unfamiliar.

ALL-ENCOMPASSING SPORT

But he also views his sport as one that has an advantage over the mainstream ones. For example, a successful major-league hitter must possess the hand-eye coordination to make contact with a variety of pitches that break at different angles.

Fencing is different. Martin said he learned that more than a dozen years ago as he was preparing for the North American Cup. He was dismissive of an opponent that he foil fenced against before that competition — a man named Harold who was more than 70 years old. The match culminated in “the worst butt-kicking of my life.”

“Harold wasn’t quick, but he was extremely accurate,” Martin said. “Strength has nothing to do with it.”

That is one reason why the muscular Martin does not fit the mold of the prototypical fencer. He is about 6 feet tall and 215 pounds. The typical fencer is tall and lean. Martin said that garnered attention when he practiced with Page in Tacoma.

“One of the coaches comes over and says, ‘You’re a fencer? You look more like a cage fighter,’” he said.

Martin still lifts weights, which he acknowledges “makes you big and slow,” but feels that mental acuity has a stronger relation to success in his sport than agility.

“It’s like chess on your feet,” he said.

Page, who serves as a volunteer coach at Metro Tacoma Fencing Club, said Martin has the ability to make it feel more like checkers for newcomers, though.

“He’s got a very grounded instruction style,” he said. “He can break down moves and simplify them. He has a very keen eye on helping out his students. He doesn’t come across as condescending.”

There are three main types of fencing: foil, epee and saber. Martin competed professionally in the former two and those are the focus of his beginners’ class. Both feature different types of blades and scoring, but Page feels foil is the better choice for newcomers.

“Foil is the best starting point for fencing,” he said, citing the development of footwork, distance and point control. “You’re thinking on your feet and there’s a lot more strategy. It gives you the most well rounded skill set than starting with another weapon.”

Based on observations from his club and others, Martin estimates only 15 percent pick up the sport as a hobby. He said one of the biggest challenges is getting students, particularly adults, to realize it is not a scene out of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Instead, Martin focuses on basics with his beginners’ class, which meets for eight weeks. He focuses on footwork, developing proper mechanics and the sport’s roots. Martin frequently reads books to enrich his fencing knowledge.

“The history of the sport is just as interesting as the real game,” he said.

While the sport has evolved, one aspect that Martin and Page relish remains the same.

“It’s a great stress relief,” Page said. “You get points for hitting and have people cheering for you.”

 

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