En garde in Los Altos : Fencing hails dueling dominance, romantic pastime

Photo Courtesy Of April Bautista Under the watchful eye of coach Aleksei Murugin, left, Geoffrey Tourette, center, and Sidarth Kumbla demonstrate the art of fencing at Silicon Valley Fencing Center's grand opening in June.

For anyone on the fence debating what would be a great way to get in shape, exercise the brain and make the magnificent moves that made Wesley and Inigo Montoya famous in “The Princess Bride,” Aleksei Murugin’s Silicon Valley Fencing Center could help.

And like the fencing sport of yore that spread across Europe throughout the ancient, dark and medieval ages, fencing is gaining prominence and recognition across the United States.

“It’s not as popular as baseball, football and basketball, but fencing is growing,” Murugin said. “(But) it’s second of the safest sports after badminton.”

With more than 20 years’ experience as a fencing student, competitor and coach – and a master’s degree in physical education and Olympic sports from the National University of Physical Education and Sports of Ukraine – Murugin opened the Los Altos studio at 4500 El Camino Real in June after training students for nine years in the Bay Area.

Like many of his students – some as young as 6 – Murugin and his childhood friends were drawn to the sleek rapiers and elegant moves of yesteryears’ fencing fights depicted in Hollywood swashbucklers.

“We all liked the movies with the Musketeers – Zorro,” Murugin said. “It’s kind of a romantic sport.”

So when a fencing coach visited his school in Ukraine to introduce the sport to students, then-10-year-old Murugin was in – and on his guard.

In the years that followed his training, Murugin claimed the title of Ukrainian National Champion in fencing and was a member of the Ukrainian National Fencing Team and the Ukrainian Military National Fencing Squad.

His wife, Yuliya, is also a fencing aficionado, with 20 years’ experience in the sport, former membership on the Ukraine’s fencing squad and a master’s in physical education and a degree in sports psychology from the same university as her husband. Yuliya will also coach, Murugin said.

For those with no experience, Murugin offers a beginner’s class that introduces fencing’s history, etiquette, footwork, sparring moves and game rules.

With evidence that fencing, or sword fighting, existed as early as 1200 B.C., the reasons for the jousts have evolved with the weaponry. Greek and Roman soldiers fenced with short swords and light spears; the Dark Ages introduced cruder and heavier knives; and by the 15th century, Italians favored the long, light rapier. But it was the Italian, German and French influence on technique that really shaped the sport.

Today, fencers can choose the épée, sabre or foil – different types of swords – for fighting.

“Foil was the weapon for me, though I can fence with other weapons,” said Murugin, who teaches foil fencing at the Los Altos studio.

Fencing game rules differ for each weapon, but the goal is the same – touch the opponent more than he or she touches you. Regular bouts last nine minutes – three, three-minute periods – or until a fencer earns five points, whichever comes first.

Starting in the “first position” with foils “en garde,” competitors advance and lunge to jab – front or back torso only – and retreat behind the line when strategy calls for an exit. Besides fancy footwork, Murugin said fencing is a game of wits.

“The game is kind of like chess – you have to outsmart the opponent,” he said. “It’s very athletic and physical, but it’s also a mental game.”

Los Altos resident Isaac Madan discovered the joy of fencing when he was introduced to the sport in a class at The Harker School in San Jose.

“I just had a lot of fun progressing,” Madan said.

Now fencing for nearly six years – some of those under Murugin’s tutelage – Madan said fencing has helped develop his reflexes.

“It’s been called physical chess,” he said. “People can really learn to balance the cognition and physical exertion.”

Several factors help students develop style and technique, Murugin said, including their height, speed, reaction time and individual personalities: Do they attack or wait to react?

“Every fencer has (his or her) own style,” he said.

One student likes to score points early then retreat to run out the clock to victory, which prompts his opponent to advance aggressively because the other fencer has nothing to lose.

And fencing isn’t relegated to the male gender. While Olympic fencing with the épée belonged to men when established in 1896, women began to compete in the games in 1924 using the foil, and in 1996, brandishing the épée.

“Anybody can fence – children and adults,” Murugin said.

Beginning fencers’ weekly 55-minute sessions start with warm-ups, footwork exercises and then drilling and sparring practice with a partner to develop coordination and endurance, Murugin said.

They also need to develop a tolerance for the body gear. Between the long socks, knickers, body and underarm protectors, jacket, mask and gloves, “it gets hot inside, but you get used to it,” he said.

Advanced-fencing sessions – 90 minutes up to four times weekly – condition students preparing for local competitions or advancing to sectional and national championships.

Murugin’s students won two silver medals and a gold at the U.S. Fencing Association 2011 Summer Nationals in Reno last month. Another placed eighth among 86 contenders.

Madan participated in last year’s international Senior World Championships.

“It was mostly for the experience,” he said.

The final hurdle for a fencer with aspirations – qualifying for the U.S. fencing team.

“Some people decide to go all the way,” Murugin said. “I didn’t make it to the Olympics. That was tough.”

At his peak on Ukraine’s national team, Murugin practiced three hours a day, six days a week.

Madan said he tries to train three to four times each week. Fencing is a lifelong activity Madan plans to maintain. And with the training sessions and his upcoming position on Stanford University’s varsity fencing team as a freshman, Madan will have that opportunity.

“If you want to keep up, you have to practice,” he said.

A preseason training camp is scheduled to begin Monday.

For more information, call 273-0414 or visit

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