Interview with Fencing Coach Tony Alvarez: Fencing in Middle Pennsylvania

Tony Alvarez began intensively training in fencing in 1999 and soon became certified in saber, epee, and foil. In 2010, Alvarez founded his Carlisle Fencing Club, where he currently teaches. Today, Alvarez joins us in discussing Olympic-style fencing. All images provided by Tony Alvarez.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello and welcome Mr. Alvarez! Thank you for joining us!

Tony Alvarez: Thank you for having me. I look forward to the questions!

MAYTT: When did you begin fencing and what aspect of the sport continues to motivate you to train and coach?

Tony Alvarez

TA: I started in fencing in college briefly in 1978-79. I then moved to a more structured club in North New Jersey in the late 1980s. I really did not again fence till in 1999, when a club opened in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Since then, it has been continuous as I grew from a novice fencer to a three-weapon certified coach, club owner, and competitor.

The sport has evolved in the last twenty years. I find myself still learning as a coach and competitor.

MAYTT: How have you seen the training regimen change or modify itself since you began fencing? Would you consider these modifications and adaptations to have positive or negative effects on current fencers? How so?

TA: Saber fencing has changed radically in twenty years because of rules changes, equipment changes, referee training, and competition tactics. The fencers are more athletically trained as well.

MAYTT: I see. What was the fencing community like when you first started fencing? Was it a robust community, teeming with fencers, or was it characterized by small pockets of clubs and schools isolated from each other?

TA: Because I live in central Pennsylvania, fencing clubs are largely recreational and not a retail business. Also, the club is very isolated because of distances from other clubs. The general public is largely uneducated about what Olympic-style fencing is about. The public learns what fencing is from what they see in the movies.

MAYTT: Fencing has been around for centuries and the public’s perception of it changes with each generation. How did the American public view fencing when you began, and have you seen a change in that perception since you started?

TA: I don’t think that the public view of fencing in general has changed in the last twenty-five years due to Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Zorro movies.

MAYTT: Tell us about where you currently coach, Carlisle Fencing Club. What influenced you to establish your own club? Did you see that there was something missing from the fencing landscape that you felt you could offer to practitioners?

TA: I started the Carlisle Fencing Club due to the fact that there was nowhere close for me to fence. The club is going to be twelve years old.

MAYTT: Congratulations! Who do you feel had the most influence in establishing fencing throughout Pennsylvania and the Northeast? What made these fencers and coaches stand out from their contemporaries?

TA: In my mind, Olympic-style fencing has a low presence in Pennsylvania as a whole. I really don’t see it growing until it’s introduced in middle schools as a recreational and competitive sport.

MAYTT: With that being said, have there been any sort of steps taken to add fencing in the schools in your local area or in Pennsylvania in general? Is there a model that other regions have implemented that fencing schools in Pennsylvania can employ?

TA: There is, to my knowledge, no organized effort to introduce fencing to a middle school by and large. I did teach at a private school for two years but that didn’t work. New Jersey has the most robust middle and high school fencing programs in the USA. I think that it is because it’s a small state, size wise, and many high European coaches arrived there between twenty and thirty years ago.

MAYTT: That is interesting. In your opinion, how has fencing remained a part of American sports culture as the sword is not an everyday item in American life? What is it about fencing that continues to draw people to participate in the sport?

TA: I think that people are drawn to fencing as some romantic notion and fantasy that they have from what they have seen in the movies.

MAYTT: How has the Olympics helped maintain fencing in the public eye? If the sport was not in the Olympics, would fencing still have the following it does today?

TA: Fencing on TV is not a spectator friendly sport. The action is too fast and complex, and rules are difficult for the casual TV viewer.

MAYTT: What ways can fencing coaches, clubs, and athletes help dispel some of the complexities of the sport? Would further education of the public help attract more people to the sport?

TA: One of the things I do to help is to forgo the purchase of electric fencing equipment for beginner students. I think fencing demonstrations help bring Olympic-style fencing to the public. I have done some over the last couple of years with poor results.

MAYTT: Within the combat sports/arts community, Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) has been growing steadily since the late 1990s. In your experience, how have you seen HEMA effect fencing? Is it a positive or a negative effect?

TA: Right now, I think that HEMA has a negative effect because of its lack of structure and rules which are the very things that make it attractive to many of its students. There are some serious safety issues within HEMA which will not make it grow, especially with children.

MAYTT: Continuing with HEMA, would there be any possibility in the future for fencing and HEMA clubs to come together to learn and compete with each other? What steps would need to occur to make this hypothetical scenario possible?

TA: I would say, No! The United States Fencing Association insurance would not cover any organized HEMA/USFA fencing. Having said that, I fight on a weekly basis with a student of mine who is a HEMA coach, using the small sword. I learned the older style of foil and epee and easily transferred those skills to the small sword. It would be dangerous to fight with a military saber and long sword with Olympic fencing weapons.

MAYTT: Final question. Given your time within the sport, what do you think the future holds for fencing? How will the sport adapt itself to a post-COVID world?

TA: I think it’s too early to tell what the long-term effect will be on fencing clubs in general. Some clubs have closed, and others have prospered. The Carlisle Fencing Club has done well with COVID.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk about fencing!

TA: It was my pleasure.


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