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The Bradsher Beat
Friday, June 6, 2008

By Bethany Bradsher

Swordsmanship alive in Pirate Land

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

If buccaneer lore and Hollywood franchises are to be believed, early pirates spent a good bit of time drawing their swords and then parrying and striking up and down the slippery deck of a listing ship.

Which is why a little-known group of club athletes might be considered the most authentic Pirates at East Carolina. Meet the ECU Fencing Team – true swashbuckling pirates.

When Steven Kmiec arrived here as a freshman, the fencing team was small and disorganized. Kmiec had fenced some when he was younger, and he wanted to compete in the sport at ECU. He generated some publicity and brought in more than a dozen new fencers, mostly students who came in knowing little or nothing about the sport.

“Very few people ever have the opportunity to try fencing before they get to college,” Kmiec said.

So completely did these new fencers take to the sport that just three years after Kmiec helped reorganize the club, three of his fencers won first place at the South Atlantic Collegiate Championships in February at N.C. State. At the tournaments they enter around the state, they have consistently overachieved.

“We’ve tried to build it into something competitive, Kmiec said. “Considering how little experience we have and the fact that it’s not much of a fencing culture, we’ve had better than expected finishes.”

Lily Trout was so flabbergasted by her team’s first place finish at that February tournament that she wondered if the presenter had read the wrong name. But their women’s epee team – Trout, Jessica Beall and Virginia Stewart – had outlasted 16 other teams in the elimination stage of one of the few team-scored tournaments they have ever entered.

“We worked really well together, because there was no one single fencer on any the teams who could beat all three of us,” Trout said.

Trout came into the sport late in life – her mother had fenced in her youth and Trout had always been intrigued by the sport. The ECU club team offered her the ideal opportunity, and she was soon hooked.

Trout's success at the N.C. State tournament was a little like a college student shooting baskets for the first time outside his dorm, and then walking on to the varsity basketball team and making the All-Conference Team.

“When I got to ECU as a freshman, I just wanted to try something I’d never done before,” she said.

And there’s one more twist that makes Trout’s fencing journey even more compelling: Growing up in Atlanta, her classmates might have voted her “Least Likely to Ever Win an Athletic Competition.”

“I’ve never actually been all that athletic,” she said. “But you don’t have to be that athletic. Fencing is short, intense bursts, so you don’t have to have that much endurance. You’re never actually competing for more than three minutes, but that can seem like a long time.”

When ECU is in session, the fencing team practices twice a week and competes once or twice a month, and many of the tournaments are hosted by a vibrant fencing community in Wilmington. The tournaments, which are generally open events with awards for individuals only, are vital for the Pirate fencers because they show them how much more they have to learn, Trout said.

“You can only do so well fencing the same people over and over again,” she said. “You think you’re doing OK, then you go to Wilmington and get your butt kicked, and you say, ‘I need to go home and work on my parries.”

The next hurdle for the Pirates’ team is another tournament at N.C. State on June 21. The field for that contest will include some of the top athletes in the sport, Trout said, so it will be an exceptional test for the handful of ECU fencers who are planning to compete there.

Kmiec has noticed a heightened interest in fencing this year because of the upcoming Summer Olympics, but Trout said that most of her classmates at ECU still don’t know what fencing is or how one succeeds in the sport.

The club does have team T-shirts, but they are plain white with black “ECU Fencing” printed on the front. Nothing about swashbuckling pirates.

That might be a marketing opportunity that someone needs to tap into.

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06/06/2008 03:58:30 AM

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