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Morgan Hill
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December 6, 2022

Rapier sharp: Master fencer John DeCesare guides sport’s venture at Gavilan

“On guard!” The last time you probably heard that phrase you
were watching a film and a man wearing tights was yelling, rapier
in hand, preparing to fight a masked bandit. Now picture Patty
Ehlers: A sunshine-faced 55-year-old, mother and member of the
United States Fencing Team who has compete
d twice at the Veterans World Championships. Ehlers is also an
advanced student of Gavilan College’s master fencer, John DeCesare.
She and almost 15 other of his advanced students volunteered to
assist the beginners class at the community college in an attempt
to foster the fencing spirit in other
s – and specifically, in women.
“On guard!”

The last time you probably heard that phrase you were watching a film and a man wearing tights was yelling, rapier in hand, preparing to fight a masked bandit.

Now picture Patty Ehlers: A sunshine-faced 55-year-old, mother and member of the United States Fencing Team who has competed twice at the Veterans World Championships.

Ehlers is also an advanced student of Gavilan College’s master fencer, John DeCesare. She and almost 15 other of his advanced students volunteered to assist the beginners class at the community college in an attempt to foster the fencing spirit in others – and specifically, in women.

“Women were only allowed to do foil when I was in college,” Ehlers said.

The two heavier weapons, epee and saber, were off limits for females in competition.

Last year, the US Women’s Fencing Team captured their first-ever gold medal in the individual saber competition.

After their win, Ehlers said an interest in fencing has spiked.

“We seem to have a lot more females,” DeCesare said. Beginning classes are approximately 80 percent female.

“Fencing is definitely a sport that crosses over (genders),” Ehlers said. “We used to fight just men.” Now women fence both genders. She said the only difference between men and women besides wearing a plastic breast plate under their uniform, is style. “You don’t usually see men shying away from full contact.”

Fencing is an equalizing sport. Size can be canceled out by agility and speed. And agility, speed and strength can be canceled out by knowledge.

But despite this fact, some people, she said, are afraid of hitting others.

“My personal problem is that I don’t like hitting people,” said Karen Conroy, one of DeCesare’s students. “I’m good at parrying, (avoiding being hit), but unless you strike – you’re never going to win.”

But this feeling isn’t pervasive throughout the class.

“I had a guy quit on me because I was too rough,” said beginning student Nita Batres. While possessing opposite strategies, both women say they love fencing because it gets out their aggression.

“The person behind the mask can be anybody you’d like them to be,” DeCesare said. “You may be even with 10 people at the end of the day – including the guy who gave you a parking ticket.”

Aside from being an emotional release, fencing is good exercise.

“It’s a wonderful finesse sport,” Ehlers said. “You don’t have to be incredibly strong to do this – but you have to be fit. Fencers have the best butts. Fencers have gold medal butts.”

DeCesare looks the part of a master, complete with a dark goatee and mustache that turns up slightly on the sides. He could be one of the original Musketeers.

Legend has it he’s well into his 80’s. But that’s one trick only DeCesare can solve.

“I’ve been fencing so long I had to throw Dartanion out – he wasn’t very good,” he said. A professional magician and card dealer, he always keeps his students on their toes.

Class begins with a salute of the sword. Then it’s “On guard!” followed by a series of instructions: “Advance. Reverse. Stretch. Cross over and retreat. Recover.”

Twenty pairs of sneakers squeak across the gym floor in a series of delicate steps – a ballet with swords. The advanced students fall out of formation to correct a dropped arm or help lift the sword.

“They automatically do that because they are family,” DeCesare said. “I didn’t ask them to.”

A Round Robin forms where fencers form two parallel lines and face off for three minutes, dueling men versus women. Old versus young, rotating until all have been fought.

“It doesn’t matter,” DeCesare said.

Observing the beginning students parrying, Ehlers noted the nice sword play.

“There was some pretty good beginning fencing – they just have to stick with it,” she said. “Don’t be intimidated because you have to go up against a guy.”

Kristen Munson
A staff member edited this provided article.

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