The Art and Skill of Fencing in the North State
● By Jon Lewis
Story by Jon Lewis
Photos courtesy of John Martin Streeby, and TA Schmidt
MILES MINER was drawn to the sport of fencing after reading “The Count of Monte Cristo” and watching “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Star Wars” movies. The University Preparatory School sophomore quickly learned there is less Hollywood flair and much more concentration involved in sword fighting.
“It’s much more of a mind game … trying to predict your opponent’s mind and anticipate their moves,” the 15-year-old says. “It’s a real engaging sport.”
So much of fencing involves the brain that veteran instructor John Martin Streeby likens it to “physical chess.”
It’s a thinking man’s game, agrees fellow fencer Michel Small, but it takes considerable effort, too. “There’s a fair amount of athletic talent involved. It’s a very quick sport with fine movements. It’s very demanding physically if you’re fencing somebody who is good. It’s pretty intense. I remember losing 12 pounds in a day,” says Small, a part-time English instructor at Shasta College.
Small, 73, picked up the sport as a teen, encouraged by his father, who was trained in fencing in his native France. Small started training in San Francisco, under an instructor who coached the Hungarian Olympic sabre team, and went on to excel at University of California, Berkeley.
After teaching at Pennsylvania State College for 10 years, Small moved to Redding to take a teaching position at Shasta College and resumed fencing when he connected with Streeby, who has been leading a fencing class through Redding Parks and Recreation for the past 10 years.
Streeby, 67, says one of the benefits of fencing is its enduring nature. “It’s something you can do long-term. It’s a thinking sport. You have to think on your feet. It improves balance and speed. A lot of fencing is kind of a mind game in the way you present your attack. You can make your opponent do what you want him to do without him knowing it. It’s a skill well worth developing.”
Streeby, a metal sculptor by trade, started fencing in 1973 while attending Iowa State University and returned to the sport in the late 1980s when he moved to Albuquerque, N.M. The fencing club was run by noted fencer John Helmick and later by Andy Shaw, an alternate on the United States’ fencing team in the 1968 Olympics.
“When he took over, fencers started coming out of the woodwork… guys from Princeton, Yale. There was always one big tournament a year that drew fencers from Colorado, Utah, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. We’d all fence at their tournaments, too. It wasn’t unusual to have 100 fencers at a tournament,” Streeby says.
Fencing evolved from the period in the Middle Ages when gunpowder was invented and knights, wielding broadswords, began to realize their heavy armor was not doing them much good. Streeby says knights began wearing less armor and by the 14th century had started using rapiers, a faster and lighter weapon.
New weapons meant new instruction, and schools were established with the bulk of formal training centered in France after starts in Spain and Italy. The foil, the lightest of the three fencing weapons, was the primary teaching sword.
In matches using the foil, scoring “touches” are recorded when the tip of the foil strikes an opponent on the torso or back. With the epee, a slower and larger weapon, the entire body is fair game for touches. The third weapon, the sabre, is modeled after the cavalry weapon and is the fastest of the three. Touches can be scored anywhere above the waist; cutting or slashing touches with the side of the blade are legal.
Streeby fences with an epee, but primarily teaches with the foil. “The epee is a little heavy for kids and you can learn all the footwork from foil,” he says. “We work on the footwork and bladework and over time you become proficient at those and it becomes second nature.”
Beginners start with non-electric weapons and bouts are judged by a floor referee. In tournaments, touches are scored electronically using a system of cords, a metal mesh vest and sensors on the tip of the weapon.
“You want to set it up so you’re opponent is off-guard while making your touch. It’s all about distance, timing and deception. The foil and sabre are more dependent on speed and athleticism; the epee is based more on strategy and athleticism,” Streeby says.
Claire Rogers, a senior at U Prep, has been studying fencing with Streeby since spring 2017 and she feels she’s evenly matched, even though a majority of the students are male. “Some of the people I’ve fenced are physically stronger than me, but it doesn’t come down to strength that often. It’s more strategy and knowing what you’re doing, the routine and the move you need to do.
“I feel there’s enough strategy and brainwork to make it really interesting. I find it really enjoyable. It’s a challenge to think in a different way than I usually do.”
Rogers, 16, hopes to continue fencing in college and notes that her first choice, UC Davis, has a fencing club.
“It’s great fun,” Streeby says. “Everybody has seen some fencing in a movie somewhere and everybody likes to get in there and start swinging. I think they like the action and they like the movements because they are graceful and athletic. And they like the history behind the sport, the heroics and the Napoleonic stuff.” •
For information on fencing classes, visit
or call (530) 225-4095.