When Drew Walker began fencing in 2016, he was a quiet kid.
He was fairly withdrawn, said Drew’s father, Weymouth Walker, during a Tuesday night practice of the Dunwoody Fencing Club. Shoes scuffed and buzzers droned over his voice as he spoke, a handful of fencing teenagers locked in combat just a few feet away. Weymouth said once Drew found his groove at the fencing club, that reserved quality dissipated.
“He’s been a different kid since he came here,” Weymouth said.
Drew now lives in Ohio, where he’s a Division 1 fencer at Cleveland State University. In 2018 – just two years after he picked up the sport – he became the USA Fencing Division 2 Men’s Épée Champion.
“It was all made possible at this club,” Weymouth said.
Coach Kathy Vail started the Dunwoody Fencing Club in 2004, but began fencing long before that in a college P.E. class. The unit was split between archery and fencing, and while Vail thought archery was cool, something about fencing stuck out to her.
“I didn’t realize that women could do that. I had always thought of it as a men’s sport,” Vail said in a phone call with Reporter Newspapers. “When I realized that this was something I not only could do, but that I was actually good at and enjoyed doing, I started down that path.”
The very first edition of the Dunwoody Fencing Club was just a few fencers strong, but today the club boasts around 35 members, with the bulk of the students around high school and college age. Tuesday nights at the Rivercliff Community Center on Roswell Road are reserved for students who are looking to prepare for regional or national tournaments, but the club welcomes recreational fencers too. The main rule, Vail said, is that you never say no.
“The biggest, scariest guy says, ‘You want to fence?’ [You say] yep,” Vail said as she kept one eye on the fencers. “The littlest guy toddles up and says, ‘You want to fence with me?’ Yes, yes I will.”
On that particular Tuesday, a group of about six fencers warmed up with a bit of “follow the leader,” which Vail said helps them work on their footwork. For “follow the leader,” one fencer stands in front of the group, shuffling forwards and backwards as the other fencers stand across the room and follow. After the warm-up, the fencers prepared for a friendly mini-tournament for practice.
As the tournament began, Vail explained the mechanics of fencing in a way that only a great coach can – strikingly detailed, but always in the simplest terms so even a novice could understand.
The Dunwoody Fencing Club uses the épée as its weapon of choice, but there are two other weapons fencers could use – and the rules are different for all of them. To keep things simple, Vail explained the rules for épée fencing. Fencers keep track of the score of a game, or a “bout,” by keeping track of “touches.” A touch occurs when the tip of one fencer’s épée hits the other fencer anywhere on their body. The fencers and their weapons are hooked up to a mechanism that emits a loud buzz every time a touch occurs.
Vail said one of the things that drew her to fencing in the first place was how much of a mental game it is. Fencing is often compared to chess, she said, and while that analogy may be overused, it is true that the smartest fencer will win more often than the strongest fencer.
“When they say [fencing] is like physical chess – yes and no,” Vail said. “The way it’s like physical chess to me is, I can have the best plan in the world, but then you don’t do what I want you to do.”
A trickle of parents, including Weymouth Walker, sat on the sidelines watching the practice tournament, all with nothing but glowing words for Vail and what the Dunwoody Fencing Club has done for their kids.
“She has not missed a practice in two years,” said Laura Mihill about her daughter Maggie, who is a sophomore. “She loves every minute of it.”
David Scharf, who is a fencer himself, said his teenage son Ryan Scharf picked the sport up about three years ago. They live in Decatur, making for about an hour and a half round trip every time they drive out to the Rivercliff Community Center, but David said it’s worth it.
“You can come here with no knowledge of fencing and you will be taught,” he said. “When you go places and people see you’re with Dunwoody, that means something.”
The parents said the recognition and respect for Dunwoody fencing comes from a respect for Vail herself – and that recognition is national. This year, USA Fencing selected Vail to participate in its Leadership Academy Class of 2022. The academy is a 10-month program that provides “educational and training opportunities” to those interested in serving in leadership positions in the organization, according to a press release. Vail was one of 15 individuals chosen for the academy.
“I felt honored,” Vail said of being chosen to participate. “Especially when I saw the group they had selected. I am very honored and humbled to be part of that group.”
Those who know Vail said it comes as no surprise.
“When she speaks, everyone gets real quiet and listens,” David Scharf said. “She may not have the loudest voice, but she’s always incredibly thoughtful.”