Sorrows student thrives on fencing, like ‘chess at a hundred miles an hour’

Rachel Hendrian, an 8th grade student at Our Lady of Sorrows School in Farmington, will compete in the Junior Olympics in fencing Feb. 12-15. Rachel's weapon, the foil, is considered the most difficult for which to qualify.  Courtesy of Dianne Hendrian

Rachel Hendrian, an 8th grade student at Our Lady of Sorrows School in Farmington, will compete in the Junior Olympics in fencing Feb. 12-15. Rachel’s weapon, the foil, is considered the most difficult for which to qualify.
Courtesy of Dianne Hendrian

You could fit in a gnat’s navel what I know about fencing.

To wit: When the editor suggested a story idea about an eighth-grade fencer, I called upon my rural background and thought: Hmm, a youngster putting up fences, posts, gates, etc., to corral livestock.

To nit wit: “Don, fencing is a sport!”

(Pause)

“I knew that, I knew that.”

So, I traversed on a dark and dank evening to the Salle d’Etroit Fencing Academy in the vicinity of Interstate 96 and Newburgh Road to meet Rachel Hendrian, a 13-year-old who attends Our Lady of Sorrows School in Farmington and who will be one of 20 Michiganians among 1,300 athletes competing in the Junior Olympics Fencing Championships Feb. 12-15 in Cleveland.

Upon arrival, I encountered Ben Schleis, Rachel’s coach. He co-founded the academy 10 years ago after graduating from Michigan Tech, where he joined the fencing club “because that’s what people in college do,” he said.

Where was I during my academic career at the University of Detroit, whose fencing roots go back more than eight decades, to 1929 for men (NCAA champs in 1972) and since 1980 for women.

I thought I knew what there was to know about fencing from watching Turner Classic Movies and swashbucklers like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Errol Flynn.

“That’s not the real thing. We don’t buckle our swashes,” said Schleis with almost a straight face. (Fencing has a humorous side?)

The three main weapons in fencing are the epee, foil and saber. Movie fencers are choreographed to duel to the death, leaping, jumping, somersaulting. In the “real thing,” fencers are restricted to an area called a strip, 3-by-14 meters (3 feet by 46 feet).

You win by scoring five points. Points are “touches” a fencer makes on her opponent: anywhere on the body with the epee, only on the torso for the foil, and anywhere above the waist with the saber.

Matches are only three minutes long, so there is a lot of back-and-forth, attack and counter-attack going on. “You have to think quickly and react to get your opponent in a position for a touch,” said Schleis, adding: “Some compare fencing to playing chess at a hundred miles an hour.”

Which is exactly the sport’s attraction for Rachel, who began training with Schleis 18 months ago: two to three times a week during the school year and four times a week in the summer.

“You’re changing your strategy in the heat of the moment,” she said. “It’s hit and don’t be hit.”

(Conversely, Rachel let me know she enjoys playing chess, at the pace of an arthritic snail. She’s 7-3 in tournaments this year.)

Rachel has made a “tremendous amount of improvement,” said Schleis, commenting on her diligence and focus on getting better. “I see a lot of potential.”

Weekends in the Hendrian household are usually devoted to tournaments, mainly in this corner of Michigan. Rachel has participated in 17 of them in the last 12 months. She qualified for the foil in the 13-17 age group for the Junior Olympics.

“This will be her first-ever national competition,” Schleis said, cautioning what Rachel can expect against contestants who have been in training longer than she has. “But she’ll learn a lot from the experience.”

Rachel will continue fencing through her high school years with the ultimate goal of a college fencing scholarship. She’s undecided which high school; her options are Farmington High, Farmington Hills Mercy or Livonia Ladywood. (Her brother Kyle is a sophomore at Novi Detroit Catholic Central).


Don Horkey may be reached at dhorkey@wowway.com.