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Alameda Business Focus: Pacific Fencing Club

Submitted by on 1, March 11, 2011 – 4:46 pmNo Comment

Photos by Ari Knoops.

By Heather Lyn Wood

While fencing is not a household sport for many people, most can at least informally describe the activity: Participants wearing special clothing and masks lunge at each other with long, but harmless, swords. (Fans of ABC’s ‘Modern Family’ know the sport as a pastime of the endearingly neurotic, prematurely adultish sixth grader Manny Delgado.)

Though a minor sport compared to world favorites like soccer, basketball and tennis, fencing has a long history and loyal following in the United States and abroad. Originally practiced by upper class Europeans as preparation for real sword dueling, fencing was first enjoyed as a recreational art in the 18th century. Since then, it has spread across the globe and is one of four sports to have been featured at every one of the modern Olympic Games.

Harold Hayes directs Alameda’s Pacific Fencing Club, located since 1995 in the Oddfellows Hall on Santa Clara Avenue. Upon meeting him, it is not hard to imagine Hayes teaching a sport originally perfected by gentlemen of the king’s court. The author and coach’s gentle, contemplative demeanor fits the sport, which he explains is more about precision and discipline than waving swords in the air.

Three types of weapon are used in fencing, none of which are technically ‘swords,’ as they have been modified for gaming purposes. The foil is a light thrusting weapon that targets the torso, including the back. The sabre is a light cutting and thrusting instrument that targets the entire body above the waist, except for the hands. The épée is a heavier thrusting weapon used to target the entire body. Taking a real (ie., potentially lethal) épée off the wall of his studio, Hayes explains, “if you were in the court of one of the Louis, you would have practiced with one of these – a ‘small,’ or ‘court,’ sword.”

Hayes first encountered fencing in France, where his Tuskegee Airman father was stationed during World War II. Later, as a student at Stanford University, he spent three years on the varsity fencing team. After that time in the salle d’armes (fencing hall), Hayes was hooked. Though he went on to pursue a career in academia, he continued fencing recreationally.

He earned a fencing master diploma – the Military Provost at Arms – from San Jose State, the only university in the United States offering training and certification for fencing teachers. Then, in 1984, Hayes opened the Pacific Fencing Club as a full-time occupation. At first glance, this seems a drastic step away from the philosophy professorship Hayes had originally planned. But it is clear from his patient, knowledgeable manner that Hayes’ training as an instructor has not been wasted on fencing.

Now, Hayes uses his passion and expertise to inspire a love of fencing in his students, who range from beginning to advanced. Pacific Fencing Club’s mission is to teach safety, sportsmanship, and mastery of technical and tactical skills, whether or not a student ever chooses to compete beyond the club’s walls.

The studio welcomes students of all ages and experience levels, offering instruction in a friendly, un-intimidating atmosphere. Most of the 75-member regular student body receives group instruction, but one-on-one lessons are also available. Hayes seems especially proud of the club’s children’s program, which he says provides boys and girls mental challenge, physical discipline, and guidance in sportsmanship, self-reliance, cooperation, and problem solving. Looking at old photos of former classes, Hayes points to each student by name, remarking on the ones that have gone on to fence in college and beyond.

While Hayes seems to have found his calling as a teacher, his mastery of the sport has taken him down other paths as well. At the age of 50, after decades of fencing for fun, Hayes turned competitive. At the U.S. National Championships, he won a gold medal twice, a silver once and a bronze three times. He took the gold again in the Nike World Masters Games in 1998. He has also competed in Europe on U.S. national teams, in the Fédération Internationale d’Escrime Veteran World Championships, and in the International Academy of Arms World Championships for Fencing Masters.

Despite his own obvious success in the fencing world, Hayes still seems more mentor than competitor. While some Bay Area fencing clubs focus specifically on national and international competition, Hayes explains, he is interested primarily in fencing as education and personal growth. “I want them to learn,” he says. “I want them to acquire the art.” For this, it appears that Hayes’ students could not be in better hands.

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