By Peter Dawson
On a recent Saturday morning, two dozen 10-year-olds were brandishing invisible swords, imagining they were dueling in a galaxy far, far away. The sport of fencing is able to turn that fantasy into a reality.
“It could even be as simple as asking a kid: do you like Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean?” said Cameron Woods, 18, a student instructor at Windy City Fencing and future fencer at Stanford. “Then we have a place for you.”
For the instructors at Windy City Fencing at the Menomonee Club in downtown Chicago, getting kids to sign up for introductory level fencing classes is easy. About 30 new ones enroll each month.
The ultimate challenge: developing just a few of them into Olympic-caliber fencers over the next eight years.
“It’s hard to compete with basketball or American football because these are sports kids watch on TV everyday,” said Tsanko Hantov, the owner and head coach at Windy City Fencing. “The secret is to build up a great, humble relationship from when they are a beginner. From there, it’s your role to keep them in the program.”
A native of Bulgaria, Hantov competed in the Modern Pentathlon at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and also at the 2001 World Championships, where he earned a bronze medal.
When he took over as the head coach and owner of Windy City Fencing in 2004, he quickly turned the organization into the premier club in Chicago. However, he soon discovered that the same training regimen that had guided him to the highest levels of international competition didn’t totally resonate with his new American students.
“It took me a little while to realize that if you go only with the Eastern European way, the harder way, it’s going to collapse,” Hantov said. “So I’ve started trying to balance how kids can have fun and have a program where kids can learn and compete at the highest level.”
While the lack of competitive programs in the city has helped Hantov’s business and ability to attract students, it has also kept the the area from creating a more competitive environment locally.
The true capital of the fencing in the U.S. is New York. With 10 clubs in a square-mile and some of the best fencing colleges in the country, including top-ranked Columbia University, the area has become the most common training ground for future Olympians.
At the 2012 Olympic Games, 11 of 20 fencers on the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Team spent their youth or collegiate years training in the New York area.
“Fencing is a relatively small sport where everyone kind of knows everyone,” said Zach Moss, an assistant fencing coach at Northwestern University. “The relationship between the club and college coach definitely plays a big role in the recruiting process.”
Hantov also acknowledged that the cost of his sport can be a deterrent.
All of the equipment for a single season can cost as much as $1,000 (good blades alone go for $200 and you need four or five). At the most competitive level, fencers must also pay for lodging and airfare when their club travels to national and international tournaments.
“It’s a sport that has equipment that is way pricier than most of the other sports,” Hantov said. “And when you reach a certain level and age, there’s the travel. Here in America mom and dad have to pay for that, so it’s a budget you have to be ready for every year.””
In the last few years, Windy City has sent young male and female fencers to some of the top college programs on a full scholarship, including Stanford and Ohio State.
Eventually, Hantov hopes to integrate his training program into local area high schools. However, for now, he has accepted that he must continue to build a strong foundation in a niche sport.
“I’d like to start a training academy with kids going to school and practicing during the day, but it’s hard to keep kids here in the city with hours of homework, and everything else,” Hantov said. “I want to see Windy City as that kind of program with kids chasing those kinds of high results, because some of them can get there.”