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En Garde

Arcadian teaches elegant art of swordsmanship

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When thinking of long-standing competitive sports, fencing probably isn’t the first one to come to mind. However, the sport of fencing has been around since the 18th century. The sabre-only variant has existed in Arizona since at least 2002, when Jim Barbour started training Arizonans to fence and hosting tournaments for the sport in Scottsdale.

Barbour originally started his Fencing Club over 20 years ago at the Camelback Village Health Club with a goal in mind of teaching his students how to fence at a competition level. 

Barbour started fencing when he was 11 years old. 

“I was always interested in it, from a very early age. I suppose I watched too many Errol Flynn movies. Very early on in my fencing career, I realized that if I wanted to have people to fence against, I would have to teach them too, and that brought me to being a coach eventually,” Barbour said. 

After starting the club, Barbour took an academic position at Oregon State University. While there, he trained at the famous Oregon Fencing Alliance Club in Beaverton, which enabled him to really refine his skills. 

“This is the home club of Mariel Zagunis, two-time Olympic gold-medalist in women’s sabre and her coach (the current Olympic coach) Ed Korfanty. This training gave me a level of fencing expertise I had previously not possessed,” Barbour said. 

In 2002, Barbour returned to Arizona and was recruited by The Village to resume teaching there. He formed a unique-for-its-time, sabre-only fencing club, which focuses on a particular type of fencing.

Barbour hosts tournaments throughout the year for the members of the club. In April, the second annual George Murnane tournament was held. Murnane, who passed away unexpectedly, was one of Barbour’s students from his early coaching days. 

“George started when he was 13 or 14, and continued to fence with me for four or five more years. While I was coaching him, George fenced in several USFA National Championships, and also two Junior Olympic competitions,” Barbour said. 

Barbour decided that he would dedicate the tournament to Murnane to keep him in the club’s memory. 

“I was at his funeral service and heard from many people how much he had enjoyed his time fencing with us,” Barbour said. “He was kind of a card, and since he became a tax accountant, we try and hold the tournament as near Tax Day as we can.” 

The tournament featured five events, including a 12-and-under event, intermediate sabre, women’s sabre, Veteran’s event and open event. Arcadian John Raife took third in the Veteran’s event. There were around 70 people in attendance. 

Modern fencing embraces technology while still keeping remnants of the sport’s early days to provide a fast-paced, one-on-one competition.

For instance, the iconic white suits synonymous with today’s fencers actually served a very practical purpose during the sport’s early days. Scoring touches used to be recorded by a piece of ink-dipped cotton affixed to the end of the weapon. 

Modern fencers compete by using either the foil, épée or sabre – three slightly varying weapons which each come with their own scoring strategies. The implement of choice for Barbour’s club is the sabre, which is considered to be the “quickest” of the weapons, where points are scored by both the tip and the blade and the entire body above the waist is fair game. For competitors using the épée, the whole body is targeted, and in foil events, the chest is the primary target.

In tournaments and fencing bouts, electronic suits are used to register “touches” (points). In tournaments, preliminary bouts are fenced to five touches, and then these bouts are used to seed a direct-elimination bracket. The direct-elimination bouts are scored to 15 touches. 

“I think the tournament went really well. We had a good number of participants, several of whom participated in more than one event. More importantly, I think that the members of the Murnane family felt good that we had honored the memory of our former fencer,” Barbour said. 

The next tournament will be in June at the DC Ranch Village Club. 

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