Dueling With Purpose

January 4, 2013
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By Art Petrosemolo


Atlantic Fencing Academy trains children, adults in ancient art


TINTON FALLS – The Egyptians dueled as did the Romans, English and Europeans. For centuries before gunpowder, swords were the weapons of choice.

The Star Wars light sabre fostered a generation of mini-duelers. And today, kids still pick up sticks and duel like pirates or Star Wars characters, imitating what they see in movies, TV or video games.

Coach Joann Valani works with four youngsters in a beginner class. Left to right are Sebastian Giese, Middletown; Krishan Bhatnagar, Colts Neck; Gabriel Limenez, Wall; and Chaz Hovnanian, Red Bank.

Coach Joann Valani works with four youngsters in a beginner class. Left to right are Sebastian Giese, Middletown; Krishan Bhatnagar, Colts Neck; Gabriel Limenez, Wall; and Chaz Hovnanian, Red Bank.

Modern fencing, developed in 18th century France, is more than play, says Agota Balot of the Atlantic Fencing Academy, Tinton Falls. “Fenc­ing teaches youngsters skills of concentration, focus, discipline and strategies that stay with them for years. And,” she smiles, “children take to attack, retreat and defending themselves naturally.”

Balot is a Hungarian native from a fencing family. Her mother Magda Nyári was a five-time world champion and silver medalist in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Balot has fenced since she was a child and was a Hungarian junior team champion.

She got started at the Atlantic Club in Wall in 1999. She was a personal trainer and began to offer classes in fencing. Her program attracted some 24 students as part of the club’s course offerings.

In 2001, she was encouraged by many of her students who lived in Colts Neck to open a dedicated facility. Balot partnered with the Colts Neck Recreation Depart­ment, which supplied space, and she taught fencing as part of the program for two years before opening her own studio. In 2007, she added a facility in East Brunswick.

“Fencing,” she says, “has become more visible because of the success of U.S. fencer Mariel Zagunis who was a junior and senior champion and an Olympic gold medalist in sabre in Greece (2004) and Beijing (2008).” Zagunis was the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in fencing.

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Balot consolidated her two locations into her current state-of-the-art facility in Tinton Falls in 2010. The 6,000-square-foot training site has 11-grounded metal dueling strips (a regulation 2 by 14 meters each), all with connections from the fencer to electronic scoring equipment. The facility is large enough for group lessons, training and individual instruction and hosts tournaments throughout the year.

Fencing takes quick reactions, focus, concentration and discipline and Balot and her instructors begin honing those skills with children as young as 5. The academy has about 150 members and is like a health club, offering group classes for its members from beginner through experienced.

“A typical one-hour group lesson has several parts,” Balot says, “starting with a warm-up, critical footwork, fencing drills, work with the coach and one-on-one sparring.”

Many students also take private lessons with Balot or one of her experienced coaches who all have national, international or Olympic experience.

“These sessions are intense and last only 20 minutes,” she says, “and focus specifically on a fencer’s needs.”

Fencing facilities in the area are few. Two of Balot’s former coaches have opened studios but AFA is the largest and most well equipped in the region. Balot says there are 52 high schools in New Jersey that offer fencing as a sport, many are in the more populated northern and metropolitan counties. In Mon­mouth County, The Ranney School has an ongoing program that she coaches and Christian Brothers Academy recently organized a team that is coached by one of her instructors. Balot is working with high school students John (CBA) and Nicole (Ranney) Valani who will be strong competitors in the high school state tournament at the end of the season.

Atlantic Fencing Academy owner Agota Balot, center, talks to brother and sister fencers Nicole and John Valani of Wall.

Atlantic Fencing Academy owner Agota Balot, center, talks to brother and sister fencers Nicole and John Valani of Wall.

Fencing is a sophisticated sport using specialized weapons. The foil has its origins in the 18th-century small sword. It has a thin, flexible blade and a small handguard. Touches (points) are scored with the point on the torso of an opponent. To excel in foil, fencers need strong defense and a good attack to the body.

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The epee is similar to dueling swords of the mid-19th century. They have stiff blades and large bell guards. Touches are scored anywhere on the opponent’s body and there are no rules of right-of-way. Good epee technique emphasizes timing and counterattack.

The sabre also descended from the dueling sabre that descended from naval and cavalry swords. They have a light, flat blade and a knuckle guard. Touches can be scored with either the point or the edge of the blade. Sabre technique emphasizes speed, feints and strong offense.

Children start with the lightweight foil and advance to other weapons as they improve their skills. The heavier sabre takes the size and strength of an 11- or 12-year-old to master, Balot explains.

Modern fencers wear specialized, protective equipment including masks, jackets over protective gear, and gloves.

The academy hosts events throughout the year for all age groups. Recently Balot welcomed 60 fencers to a tournament named in honor of her mother – Magda Nyári – who was a multiyear world champion with the Hungarian national team and an Olympian. Nyári competed for 27 years and continued to teach and coach until retiring from fencing at age 70.

To be a successful competitor, Balot said, “you need the physical (footwork), the technique (offensive and defensive moves), and strategy (matching my strength against my opponents’ weaknesses). And this sport demands maturity,” she continues, “and the discipline, strategy and focus to make the adjustments to move from competitor to champion. Many top world competitors do not reach their prime until their late 20s.”

Not all fencers compete in tournaments. Many adults like the sport for both its conditioning benefits as well as the fact that, although mentally demanding, it is a stress reducer. Kids love it as it is physical and channels their natural, competitive spirit.

The Academy is on Shelia Drive. The facility greets fencers seven days a week from morning until night and offers a free introductory lesson for newcomers. Additional information is available at www.atlanticfencing.com.

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