En Garde! A Fencing Renaissance For Kids On LI

Mar 23, 2016

Fencing in the United States is more popular than ever.

Since 2001 the number of high school fencing teams has doubled nationally. Long Island is no exception.

Every Wednesday night Anthony Mattera, owner of the Suffolk Fencing Academy, teaches the basics of fencing to a dozen 8-year-old boys.

On any given school night, 80 to 100 students show up here to practice.

The academy is one of 67 fencing programs in a club or school on Long Island.

The Suffolk Fencing Academy is tucked away at the end of a small neighborhood strip mall off Nichols Road. If you were passing by, you might mistake it for a dance studio because of its hardwood floors and wide open space.

That is, except for the three long, metal fencing strips that line the floor. And all of the kids wielding weapons, dressed head to toe in white protective gear.

Tonight Mattera is teaching 8-year-old Liam Loughlin how to properly attack his friend Jeremiah Alleyne. During a water break they sit up against their equipment bags, which tower over them.

“My mom been looking up fencing places, but they are far away so we couldn’t do it,” says Liam. “My friend’s mom they found a fencing place right here, so now I come here with my friend.”

Though his father, Roy, says college opportunities are what makes fencing attractive to parents.

“We liked the idea of putting him into something more obscure -- in hopes that down the road that if it is something he really takes to and sticks with it, could help with a college scholarship or something,” Roy Loughlin says. “I think a lot of parents are doing that these days…because the cost of college tuition is so high.”

The United States Fencing Association’s Youth Development Committee says that fencing can set students apart when applying for colleges. Chairwoman Jennie Salmon says a growing number of students, especially girls, are deciding to fence nationwide to get into the school of their choice.

Mattera says it’s the kids and parents in clubs like his that push athletic directors to start fencing programs in their own schools.

“That is the one thing parents tell me, they used to view fencing as an elitist sport that only the rich people could do and, um, once they come here, they realize and take a look around and wow this is really cheap and affordable,” Mattera says.

Mattera has helped set up four high school programs in the past two years. Sayville High School joined last year. Lindenhurst, Islip and Southampton are aiming for next year.  

That would make a total of 12 high school fencing programs in Suffolk and 21 competing across Long Island within the next year or two.  

“It costs 30 grand to start two programs, a boys’ team and a girls’ team, and that is what the school districts would have to invest in,” Mattera says.

That includes about $500 worth of equipment -- including masks, uniform and weapons for each player. The initial and maintenance costs of the program cover county fees, coaching stipends and transportation. If a player gets hurt, the school district’s insurance covers the injury.  

That’s about the same as outfitting a high school golfer.

And way less than basketball, football or lacrosse.

Andrea Kahl of Kings Park says when her 11-year-old-son Paul wanted to join lacrosse, she was floored by the cost.

“Just the helmet alone would cost over $100,” Kahl said. “So comparatively for sports on Long Island, this is probably one of the cheaper ones you can do.”

Mattera says that as more parents realize that fencing will set their children apart when applying for college, he expects his program to grow.

That means more 8-year-old fencers. And what 8-year old doesn’t want a sabre in his hand?

“It’s fun,” Liam says, “sabre is cool! I have always been wanting to do this.”

This story was produced as part of a collaboration between WSHU and Stony Brook University's School of Journalism.