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Elementary students get rare opportunity to learn fencing in Benzie County

Kendra Carr
Interlochen Public Radio

Fencing might bring to mind images of the 17th century and the three musketeers sword fighting.

In Northern Michigan, there aren’t very many options to learn the sport. Even fewer if you are in Elementary school. This year, Betsie Valley Elementary began an after school program to learn fencing.

During practice, 5th grader Kerri Kelly was geared up in her whites, the protective clothing worn to prevent harm during matches. She was practicing with the club's instructor. Karri didn’t have any experience with fencing when she started but that didn’t deter her from trying.

“I like playing sports and I wanted to give it a shot,” she says.

Fencing has been a sport since the 15th century, and can improve endurance, flexibility, and reflexes. But student Addison Hogarth says it's also a mental sport.

“It’s really fun, but it's also hard, because when you get to go against someone they might try to trick you and might get tagged,” says Addison.

There are currently eight students enrolled in the program. Instructor Julia Kline says they are focusing on the basics.

“Parrys and counterattack and footwork, which is really important, footwork. But, you know, they are really new. I mean, they have no idea what to expect,” Julia says.

The club was Julia’s idea and has been in the works since 2019. That was when she was hired by the SEEDS after school program and pitched the idea. Most of the other SEEDs after school programs are focused on science and ecology. But Julia Kline had another idea.

“I suggested and I was a little too excited for them to say no,” she says, laughing.

The fencing club was postponed for 2020, so Julia was able to use that time to slowly purchase the equipment.

“It's kind of hard to, like, buy all at once, because you put a number to it and it's like- ‘Oh, I don’t know about that,’” she recalls. “So, I kind of collected bit by bit over the month here.”

Now Betsie Valley has some practice equipment and an electric target. The program is funded by SEEDS, says Julia.

“They sponsor all the party; all the equipment,” she says.

Areas like Grand Rapids, Detroit, and Ann Arbor have fencing clubs but Northern Michigan is a bit different.

“We are a rural area,” Julia says. , “There’s not much happening here.”

The only fencing club in the lower peninsula North of Saginaw is the Traverse City Fencing club. Some downstate high schools have small teams as an extracurricular, but fencing for elementary students is nearly unheard of.

“I didn’t know how enjoyable it was going to be at the first minute,”

saysKerri Kelly. “I thought it would just be regular, hitting each other with swords, but now it's more exciting and stuff than I thought.”

Some colleges offer scholarships for talented fencers, but that's not really the goal of this program, Julia explains..

“To be active – to think through what you’re doing,” she says. “To read your opponent, which can really translate (to) anything in life. It's life experience that they can take with them.”

Julia wants to continue the program next year. Maybe even get a local tournament going in the future. But for now, she’s grateful for what they have.

“Some kids will never try this sport, because they have no means,” she says. But honestly, I think here in Benzie County, there (is the) funding. There are opportunities we can apply ourselves to. And if we get what we need, as far as the gear, the equipment. I don’t see a reason not to try and see how far kids can go.”

Kendra Carr joined IPR as the All Things Considered host in 2019. She previously worked at WMOM in Ludington as the News Director. In 2017, WMOM received the Michigan Association of Broadcasters "Station of the Year" award.