Touché! En Garde Detroit is a hit

En Garde Detroit might be the city’s first fencing club, but it does much more than traditional ones. Bobby Smith, founder the organization and his coaches, who come from Wayne State University and the University of Detroit Mercy fencing teams, are completely mobile … free-wheeling around the city and into schools to teach the sport. “Our program is free in schools,” Smith says. “There’s no reason to charge families for our services, so we haven’t.”

En Garde works with up to 80 kids a day and hopes the training will empower them to follow their dreams. STEM-based research fuels their approach as well as consultations with educational developmental experts. ”We’re figuring out how we raise the health of kids in low-wealth communities,” Smith says. To help move the program forward they have sponsorship from Ascension Health and St. John Hospital.

Students warm up and gear up for the day

Fencing is as much of a mental sport as it is a physical one so warm up at En Garde Detroit includes mental games and concentration games, along with push-ups and sit-ups. Coaches would stand up on chairs and toss playing cards at the students. First they’d catch them with both hands, then just one, then only red cards. Then they’d use the perfect pushup machines… two rolling handles that are stuck to the ground. Perfect as they might be, these are hard! I could barely do one… and barely caught one card! These students were pros though.

Mental agility is such an important part of the sport that there’s often a stretch of training and conditioning at the beginning of the program before students are allowed to use the weapons.”

“This period is longer in Europe, but we try to give our kids sabers sooner,” says coach and two-time Polish national champion Kuba Gibczynska. This stretch of waiting assures coaches the kids are dedicated… and builds up excitement in the players.

“Fencing is about figuring out what your weaknesses are and fixing them,” Smith says. “It’s like chess. You always have to be thinking about the next move.”

When they finally pick up their arms they quickly learn fencing weapons are the fastest moving objects in sports. You’re not supposed to look for them. Instead, keep your eyes on your opponent and try and think two or three steps ahead of him or her. Electric jackets that light up when hit are sometimes used in competition because the strike can be too fast for the eye to see.

Though fencing is the focal point of the program, Smith includes much more. The team addresses financial and technical literacy though games such as financial football on iPads. To keep students engaged one hour of financial study is rewarded with getting to play whichever game they’d like. “The tilting games also help hand-eye coordination,” says Gibczynska.

Bobby Smith counsels his students at Izzy's Raw Art Gallery

Although his passion for the sport itself is palpable, Smith sees En Garde Detroit primarily as youth development. He says his own experience as a mentee drove him to form En Garde Detroit. “A man named Peter Wesbrooke grabbed me by the collar and said ‘you have to do something with this talent.’” Smith explains. “He took me to competitions across the country and paid for private lessons that were upwards of $100 per hour… I needed to give back.”

“Fencing sometimes becomes an incentive for kids to attend school,” he says.  For successful students, unusual sports like rowing and fencing can help them gain scholarships and sometimes even admittance into more prestigious schools. A big part of the work Smith does with students is to help guide them through their searches for colleges and scholarship programs.
Fencing’s benefits are wide for those who aren’t necessarily college-bound as well. Part of the appeal of athletics is the character development accompanying sports development. Studies have been published to back this up. Specifically, the development of fine motor skills directly improves cognitive and reading abilities.

Smith sets his sights high. Recently, he’s thrown the largest minority-based tournament in state history. En Garde Detroit rented out the WSU gym for an 80-person tournament. Guest referees and mentors were community leaders, movers and shakers like Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano. “If it weren’t for people like this in the community, I’d never be able to do this,” Smith says. “It’s not just about opportunities for minorities. A lot of people in the city are limited in activities.

Even with a successful social-entrepreneurial company under his belt, students of his qualifying for the junior Olympics, and setting up unprecedented tournaments, Smith has even more ambitious plans. He wants to some company in Detroit to begin manufacturing fencing equipment. It largely comes from Europe and can be expensive. The shipping adds to this expense.  “Detroit is metal,” he says. “We should do this. It would add to the culture of the community.”

Fencing isn’t just for school-age students. En Garde Detroit has no restriction on gender, weight or age. It’s open to anyone willing to learn the art of fencing.  En Garde works with gymnasium space, sectioned-off cafeterias, dance studios or any large room. Space and a minimum 7-10 curious people are the only requirements to learn.

In case you’re ready to sign up, here’s a quick Fencing 101 guide:

Fencing has three different weapons. The saber is the modern-day cavalry sword. It’s a slashing weapon that targets from the waist up, but you’re allowed to poke at your opponent, too. Any part of your opponent’s body is fair game to win points.

The foil requires much more precision and you’re only allowed to poke the torso. The epee (pronounced ep-PAY) is like an amalgamation of the two. It’s a poking weapon like the foil, but you’re allowed to hit your opponent anywhere.

In all three, left-handed people tend to have an advantage in this sport. Right-handers are less likely to have practice fencing against lefties, and it makes a difference.

Fencing uses right-of-way rules, so hitting at the same time means no points on either side. The strategy is to be bold enough to make your opponent hesitate… they call it a “juke move.” The succession is usually the attack … an offensive jab at the opponent, then the parry … a defensive action where the blow is deflected. After successfully parrying the attack, the player will riposte (attempt to score with a retouch). After that comes the counter attack and the cycle begins again.

For more information on En Garde Detroit, fencing, or to book a spot to learn the sport yourself, visit Be sure to stay tuned for more in our unusual sports series.

Photo credit: Karpov the Wrecked Train



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