Feb 9, 2024 - News

En garde! Minnesota youth flock to fencing as sport gains popularity nationwide

two fencers

Nearly 300 youth fencers participated in the St. Paul Invitational on Feb. 3. Photo: Torey Van Oot/Axios

The centuries-old sport of fencing is experiencing a renaissance among youth in the Twin Cities and beyond.

Why it matters: Its rising popularity is fueling new club teams and programs across Minnesota, creating opportunities for even more kids to give (supervised and safe) sword fighting a try.

State of play: USA Fencing has added more than 10,000 youth members since the 2016-2017 season — a 68% increase.

  • With about 200 of those local members, Minnesota still makes up a small sliver of the fencing world, which is more dominant on the coasts.

Yes, but: Participation in some state-level fencing tournaments has doubled in less than a decade, coaches say. Nearly 300 middle and high schoolers from across Minnesota signed up for a recent invitational at St. Paul Academy, up from 179 last year.

How it works: The sport, which has its roots in dueling, comes in three variations: foil, épée, and sabre. The weapon and rules vary by discipline, but in general, competitors score by touching an opponent in a designated target area with the tip of the weapon.

  • Vests with electronic sensors help officials determine who landed the first hit.

Driving the interest: Fencing, often called a physical game of chess, requires both skill and strategy. That attracts kids who might not otherwise be interested in athletics or team sports.

What they're saying: That's been the case for Caden Lineberry, a 12-year-old competitor from St. Louis Park who picked up the blade four years ago after spending his early childhood "playing swords with sticks."

  • "It's the mindset of it," he said between matches at the SPA Invitational. "It's a lot more mental than a lot of people say."
Boy with a purple shirt and a medal
Lineberry placed 7th out of 86 competitors in the men's foil division at the SPA Invitational. Photo courtesy of Christina Snead

Between the lines: The growing trend goes beyond kids just trying the sport. Murphy, who competed in high school, said more are sticking with it and honing their skills enough to compete on the national youth circuit or collegiate level, where scholarships are sometimes available.

  • Lineberry, who trains under Murphy at YEL, regularly travels to out-of-state tournaments. The experience inspired his family to start a merchandise line aimed at bringing awareness to the sport.

What we're hearing: Boosters are scrambling to keep up with demand. New students at the Twin Cities Fencing Club will wait two to three months for an opening, Sobalvarro said.

  • Meet signups are so high that organizers are looking to find bigger gyms to host statewide tournaments.

The catch: The cost of equipment remains a barrier for some. The weapons used for foil, the most popular category, can cost between $60 to $200 or more. Serious competitors need several on hand in case one breaks.

  • Required safety equipment, including masks, also add up.

Yes, but: Many programs, including the fencing club, offer equipment for participants to use as part of their training.

  • And while it's not a sanctioned varsity sport in Minnesota, more high school club teams and other community programs are popping up.

What we're watching: The strength and success of the USA's Olympic team — members snagged one gold and four bronze in 2020 — has also played a role in the sport's explosion.

  • Local coaches expect the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris to lead to another boost in signups.

What's next: The 2024 MN High School Championships are scheduled for Feb. 24. More than 175 competitors have qualified and signed up so far.

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