Historical Fencing club at BYU offers portal back to medieval era

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Saturday morning is a special time of the week for many students at BYU. It’s a time to sleep in late after a disastrous Friday-night date, hastily shove clothes into an undersized closet before cleaning checks or put off writing a paper due on Monday.

But for students who are members of the True Edge Academy, Saturday morning means getting up a little earlier and finishing chores a little sooner.

Because at 10 a.m., it’s time to sword fight.

On Saturday mornings for the past two decades, hundreds of BYU students have striven to revive and master techniques of medieval European martial arts.

These students are not simply Renaissance re-enactors or live-action role players.

“We are martial arts practitioners along the lines of eastern martial arts dojos,” said Matthew Johnson, former leader of the club.

The True Edge Academy is one of the oldest historical fencing groups in the United States and features multiple training locations in Utah, including the Historical Fencing Club at BYU.

Though advances in weaponry and battle tactics rendered those of the middle ages obsolete centuries ago, members of the Historical Fencing Club profess that reviving these ancient art forms helps preserve them for future generations and greatly benefits the dedicated practitioner.

“We do so to revive part of our heritage, as well as gain discipline of body and mind,” Johnson said.

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The Historical Fencing Club teaches discipline is developed by internalizing the underlying fundamentals in martial arts, such as proper balance and footwork, effective use of offensive and defensive actions and the ability to feel out an opponent and react appropriately to his movements.

James Carr, a junior studying information technology, has been training with the Historical Fencing Club since October 2015. He quickly realized wielding a longsword for two hours can be a difficult task.

“It is strenuous exercise. You feel it in your shoulders and the next couple days you feel pretty sore,” Carr said. “But it is exercise, so with time you get better, you feel it less, you learn to fight through it and you feel yourself getting stronger and develop greater stamina.”

The Historical Fencing Club has training sessions to help students prevent injury and develop habits and techniques that will increase their skill.

“The first hour we stretch, especially our shoulders and any other muscles that will see heavy use,” Carr said. “We practice blocking and attacking drills to work on our form and footwork. And in the last hour, we spar.”

Sparring is often the highlight of the morning for the students, because those who meet a proficiency standard with their weapons test their skill against each other in friendly bouts.

“In order to participate in sparring, you have to complete a drill demonstrating the six main blocks,” Carr said. “If you can’t defend yourself properly, you can’t spar; otherwise, it wouldn’t be safe for you or your partner.”

While sparring, students must wear helmets to protect their heads and pads to protect their torsos, arms, hands and legs.

Medieval Armor & Modern Alternatives 

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“The swords are heavy duty plastic, but they can still hurt a bit if they hit you just right,” said Trey Sealock, a freshman who has been on the club since February 2016.

Sparring matches are intense and protective equipment does not save participants from every injury. However, no student has ever sustained a serious injury while training with the Historical Fencing Club.

“(We’ve had) several bruises or smashed fingers, but it’s all worth it,” Johnson said.

The club meets every Saturday, weather permitting, from 10 a.m. until noon on the field north of the Wilkinson Student Center.

“We’re hoping to get approved by BYU as an official club so we don’t always have to rely on good weather,” Carr said. “But until then, we’ll still be out every Saturday morning, and anybody is welcome to join or to just come and try it out.”

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