“Ready?” Pause. “Fence!”
It’s Tuesday evening at Hristov-Csikany Fencing Club, and Kristiyan Hristov is leading his students in practice.
The other coaches, Mihaly Csikany and Tsvetelina Hristov, are giving fencers half-hour private lessons, so there’s never a moment blades aren’t clashing against each other.
This is where freshman Nicholas No – nationally ranked 2nd in the under-15 age group and 18th in the cadet (under-17) division – fences. Sophomore Marigot Fackenthal, ranked 18th in the women’s cadet division, also fences here.
On a typical evening, No and Fackenthal practice for two hours.
In regular athletic wear, plus their fencing shoes, the students do a warmup: running, stretching and dynamic exercises.
Fencing shoes are like athletic sneakers, but are also similar to dance shoes, according to Fackenthal. They’re rounded on the sides, so they’re conducive to fast motions.
There’s a sign on the fencing club door warning students to ensure their special shoes are clean before setting foot on the several strips that run up and down the floor. The long metal strips are made up of very fine lines that provide traction, keeping fencers from slipping.
Next, they practice footwork.
They aren’t using their sabers or wearing any gear just yet. Instead they stand in a line and move according to Kristiyan’s directions.
“Advance.” (With one hand poised as if holding a saber and the other placed behind their backs, the fencers step forward.)
“Retreat.” (In the same manner, they step back.)
Then the students are given a few minutes to change into their uniform: knickers (fencing pants), an underarm protector (to give the fencing arm more protection), a white jacket, long socks, a glove for their fencing hand, chest protectors for the girls (optional for boys) and a helmet.
Some students grab jackets from clusters of metal lockers at the back of the club. Others race each other to the bathroom located by the lockers to change into their knickers.
“Guys, let’s go,” says one of the coaches. It’s time to fence.
The students line up, two on each strip, facing off against each other.
Kristiyan gives his instructions, and at his “Fence!” the students begin drills that closely mirror actual bouts (or duels). These drills hone in on one aspect of bouting, making them “hypothetical bouts.” Wielding a saber in one hand, the two opponents face each other, then bout, blades slashing as they use the footwork they practiced earlier.
After two or three bouts, everyone rotates and begins to bout with the next student.
Kristiyan stands with his legs and arms crossed. He shakes his head.
One student seems to be falling behind.
In an exasperated tone, Kristiyan tells her if she doesn’t want to do the drill, she should sit out.
When he asks another student what’s going on, she says she can’t do it.
“You can’t what?” he fires back.
Everything is exact, down to the number of steps.
“How many steps do you take?” he asks the students. He knows exactly how many.
“Just checking,” he says.
Kristiyan gives the students strategic advice. He coaches them to think about what the opponent will do and to exploit that and get the point. He watches them with a critical eye.
“You stepped in too much.”
“You let her attack every single time.”
Getting called out is an everyday occurrence, according to Fackenthal and No. “When they yell, it’s nothing personal,” No said.
Fackenthal and No said they understand that the coaches want to make sure the same mistake isn’t repeated.
“We’re used to it,” Fackenthal said. “We all kind of learn from each other.”
At one point Kristiyan signals to all the students except two to stop. He’s noticed a mistake. One student didn’t extend her arm quickly enough or took an extra step. He wants the class to understand the error.
The others lift their helmets and watch as he instructs the two to duel. Then he asks the other students how to fix the mistake.
“Okay? Let’s go,” he responds, once he’s satisfied with the answers.
Helmets back on, everyone resumes fencing.
No’s coaches are Bulgarian and Hungarian.
Tsvetelina was the first Bulgarian national saber champion in 1999.
Tsvetelina said when she came to the United States, she realized she was better off helping others and keeping them from repeating mistakes she made as a fencer.
“When kids are succeeding, I see myself succeeding,” she said.
Fackenthal said she admires the coaches because “they’ve worked hard to build great lives for themselves since moving from Eastern Europe to the United States.”
The club was opened in Sacramento in 2009.
The coaches don’t hold back when they’re running practices. And the fencers just have to get used it.
“His coaches are very strict,” Megan, No’s mother, said. “Once you get to a certain level, (they) expect a lot.”
However, No’s mother said that the coaching is a form of tough love. No agrees. “(The coaches) seem like they care so much,” he said.
This is the coaching No has received since he switched to Hristov-Csikany Fencing Club three years ago.
He started fencing recreationally at Sacramento Fencing Club when he was 7 years old.
His father, who fenced recreationally in college, woke up one morning, and said he had found the sport for his son, Mrs. No said. No really liked “Star Wars” and sabers.
In the first year No’s mother said he went back and forth through phases of liking fencing and not thinking it was fun at all.
“Once you start something, you finish it,” Mrs. No said. So he went through a year of fencing before he could quit.
By then, he was addicted to fencing, his mother said.
“When Nicholas first started, he wasn’t a natural,” Mrs. No said.
No admits that he was “very, very bad” for the first three years until he left his recreational club for Hristov-Csikany.
“We were very happy when he came to the club,” Tsvetelina said. “He was always talented.
“In fencing, there are many fencers, but not everybody can understand how to win the point. It’s a game you play. You’re an actor. When you are in pain or losing points, you need to show that you (can) keep yourself together.
“The best athletes are able to show strength when they are feeling low and not let the opponent get confident. You act as if everything is okay even if it may not be. (No) understands how to do that.”
Tsvetelina praises No for his physical talent, discipline, sportsmanship and ability to manipulate the opponent.
No likes the independence of fencing, or what Tsvetelina calls a game of “physical chess.”
Now fencing has evolved into a part of his life.
“I can’t imagine not doing it,” he said.
No fences five days a week, totaling eight-and-a-half hours of private lessons and practice. In the past month, he’s traveled to Poland, Hungary and Portland, Oregon. He attends over 20 local, national and international competitions a year.
Over the years, No has built his confidence and made huge improvements, according to Tsvetelina.
“He’s very hard working,” she said. “He keeps trying and trying. Usually, those are the kids that succeed.”
No’s mother said her son has become more disciplined in everything thanks to fencing, sometimes called a gentleman’s sport.
“The sport is really interesting,” she said. “It looks simple, but there are so many rules. There’s so much etiquette involved.”
For example, a fencer must salute the referees, then the opponent and then the referees again.
Mrs. No said she thinks the pressure on No is a lot for his age. However, she says she and her husband realize that a lot of the pressure comes from No himself.
No has already gotten a taste of world championships by representing the United States at World Cups.
In October, he traveled 14 hours to the Poland International Cup in Konin by plane, train and bus. To qualify, he had to be nationally ranked in the top 20 of his age group.
He recently competed in competitions in Hungary and Portland.
Mrs. No traveled to both World Cups. When she’s watching her son fence, “you can almost see my heart beating,” she said.
“Boom, boom. You feel it.”
Representing his country and wearing USA warm-ups was a first for No.
These were No’s first international competitions but certainly not his last.
Next year, his goal is to finish in the top three at a World Cup, Tsvetelina said.
Previously published in the print edition on Oct. 28, 2014.