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Out of the Spotlight: Simon Says “En Garde!”

This article was written by students in the "Writing For Publication" class at Dublin Jerome High School taught by Mrs. Trisler. All views and opinions in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinions nor policies of Dublin Jerome High School.

Out of the Spotlight: Simon Says “En Garde!”

An interview with the resident fencing coach, and a deeper dive into his history as well as the nuances of fencing.

by Hunter Rajan and Haydyn Stoner

Mar 6, 2023

Although Simon Birkhoff may be the resident fencing coach, the initial details of his background were unexpected - to say the least. Despite a certificate in fencing, he also has a Bachelor’s of Education from OSU, a Master's in Library and Information Science from Kent State, and taught English at (yuck!) Coffman. With all his language-focused education, one might wonder how an interest in fencing took precedence. It was revealed that Birkhoff has been fencing since he was five years old, and even had some family roots in fencing. It was his father’s winter sport, and since he was a professor at OSU, where Birkhoff was educated, Birkhoff was further influenced to study the blade. Though he may not have been the best at that age, learning “bad habits and bad fencing,” he finally learned good techniques in ‘99 from “other coaches that were working with him, coaching him, and teaching him.” 2002 was the culmination of these experiences, resulting in a certification at the Colorado Springs training facility. 

The coaching aspect came in when a student needed a fencing advisor, and things only escalated from there. Now, Birkhoff circulates between the three high schools as he coaches at Jerome on Tuesday, Coffman on Wednesday, and Scioto on Thursday. Groups of students have fun practicing fencing together; it’s a club, so, of course, there’s room for goofing off. At the same time, though, Birkhoff explains that “although it's a club, it’s a sport” and that practice starts out with some laps and dynamic stretching to warm up. Warm-ups are followed by blade work, with the fencers branching out and practicing with sabers, épées, and the rare foil. Then, it’s on to basic footwork and practicing moving like a professional fencer. 

Birkhoff explains that there are three types of fencing: foil, saber, and épée. Foils are the oldest type, based on the rapier, and Birkhoff explains that they are “sharp on the tip and not on the edge. You can only score on the torso with rapiers as well. Épée, similar to the foil, is based on the rapier, and scoring with the tip is possible. However, fencing with the épée is, according to Birkhoff, based on the “rule of first blood,” and you win once you hit your opponent, and you’re able to hit them anywhere. Sabres are based on cavalry weapons of horseback riders, so the target is everything above the joint of the hip. You can hit the opponent with any part of the blade. 

Birkhoff says that he would classify fencing as “physical chess,” a term that has been coined by people before him. The sport involves strategy and massive amounts of energy; although Birkhoff could try and teach the fencers endurance by doing cardio all the time, it’s still a club. No one gets cut and people don’t have to show up to practice if they don’t want to or have other obligations. 

The main fencing schools in the United States are Harvard, Columbia, Notre Dame, Stanford, Penn State, and Ohio State. Denison University is also a Division I fencing school, with Coffman alumnus Velma Hall fencing there currently. Fencing has become a more popular sport over the years and for good reason. From the many types of fencing one can practice and how far one can go with it in life, there are many components to learn from fencing.