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"En Garde!" by Bill Lovejoy, SC Sentinel

Area kids learn the fine art of fencing

If you were to try to conjure up an image of a sword-wielding swashbuckler, you would literally pass right over Max. After all he stands less than 4 feet tall in his sneakers, prefers jeans to flowing pantaloons and is without a plumed hat.

Besides there's no way his mon's letting him out of the house after dark to perform acts of derring-do.

But that hasn't kept Max from joining a growing number of Santa Cruz area youngsters who, thanks to a determined mother and a helpful fencing coach, have come together for weekly lessons in the fine art of fencing.

Cynthia Geske found early on that her son Zach had a bent for this classic form of martial arts. "When he was just 3 years old he came up to me and said, "Mom i need more swords." We had swords all over the house, but it wasn't enough.

Fast forward another eight years and Zach, having experienced sward play in the form of entertainment from Peter Pan to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, was looking to expand his fencing world.

Geske turned to UC Santa Cruz hoping to find a student in fencing to help Zach along and instead found Courtney Blackburn, fencing and tai chi instructor on The Hill. Blackburn expressed an interest in fostering his sport among area youngsters and a successful partnership was born.

"We started in a park," says Geske, "but we got rained on and the grass and dirt weren't suitable for teaching fencing. I searched around and we moved into the Vets Hall (in downtown Santa Cruz) in March of 2001."

Young fencers have come out of the woodwork since. There are three classes each week at the Veterans Memorial Building and another for home-schooled kids at Harvey West Park. And, starting this Wednesday night, from 5:30 - 6:30, Geske and Blackburn will offer a family fencing night at the Vets Hall. Parents are invited to bring their youngsters for a bit of instruction and need pay only for their child while getting in a few thrusts and parries of their own gratis.

There are also plans to hold a tournament or two again this summer as last year so the little fencers can show off their skills and pick up trophy, too.

In these days of video games and skateboards, what is the attraction for modern youngsters of weapons that date back to nearly the dawn of man?

Geske believes that the drive for hand-to-hand combat is ingrained in us from an earlier time, when the ability to handle a weapon directly influenced you life span. "The people who survived were the ones who learned to fight well and were successful at hand-to-hand combat," Geske says. "It's ingrained in us. Courtney always says that when the little boys, or even the big ones, come into a class for the first time they can't wait to get their hand on a sword."