Metro-East Living

En garde! Student brings back SIUE Fencing Club

Jessica Gatlin, left, president of the SIUE Fencing Club, spars with Nigel Knutzen, vice president, at the SIUE Student Fitness Center. Their foils have plastic buttons on the ends of flexible blades for safety purposes.
Jessica Gatlin, left, president of the SIUE Fencing Club, spars with Nigel Knutzen, vice president, at the SIUE Student Fitness Center. Their foils have plastic buttons on the ends of flexible blades for safety purposes. News-Democrat

Jessica Gatlin was disappointed when she enrolled at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville last year and learned that the SIUE Fencing Club had folded in 2013.

The nutrition major and former roller derby skater decided to bring it back.

“(Fencing) has a lot of historical significance,” said Gatlin, 22, of Edwardsville. “People used to fence in duels. It brings about a sense of danger and days gone by.”

It’s also fun and a good way to stay in shape.

In January, Gatlin recruited Nigel Knutzen, 27, of Highland, to be the club’s vice president. She is the president.

An anthropology major, Knutzen had never fenced, but he had earned black belts in Kenpo karate and tae kwon do.

“Using a foil (fencing weapon) is a lot like training with a Chinese straight sword,” he said. “The concepts are the same. They’re both thrusting blades. So picking up the mechanics was easier for me because of my experience.”

By the end of spring semester, Gatlin and Knutzen had persuaded another seven students to join the club. They have high hopes for fall.

“Our goal by the end of the year is to be competing with other collegiate teams,” such as Washington University and St. Louis University, Gatlin said.

Gatlin has been fencing since age 16.

“My mom saw that the YMCA was offering lessons,” she said. “She asked me if I wanted to take them, and I said, ‘Yes.’ Anything to get me off the couch.”

After high school, Gatlin took a break from fencing and tried roller derby, but she returned to the sport while living in Missouri and trained with the Wentzville-based Buccaneer Blades.

Gatlin and Knutzen recently met for practice with SIUE Fencing Club secretary-treasurer Gabriel Alfaro, 19, of Troy, at the Student Fitness Center.

“We’re a little rusty after summer break,” Gatlin said.

The three started with advancing, retreating and lunging drills and later worked on reflexes with “glove drops,” where one person drops a glove and the other person tries to reach out and catch it before it hits the ground.

Practice ended with sparring between Gatlin and Knutzen. Alfaro, a psychology major, winged it as referee.

“I have had no real fencing training,” Alfaro said. “I grew up in a small town (Manteno), and we didn’t really have anything like that. What I did do was archery, and then I got my first fencing sword, a saber, when I was 16, but there was nobody to teach me.”

SIUE doesn’t have a fencing coach, but Gatlin and Knutzen are working on their certifications through U.S.A. Fencing.

At practice, Gatlin was fully outfitted in a white fencing jacket, tournament knickers, a mask, glove and fencing shoes, although regular pants and tennis shoes are permissible.

“You only need one glove because you keep one hand either behind your back or back by your head,” Gatlin said. “Ideally, it won’t get hit.”

The club has six males and three females on its roster. There are plenty of female fencers in the United States, Gatlin said, but the sport tends to be male-dominated in the Midwest.

The SIUE students fence Olympic style.

“We have a set of strips, and we fence only on the strip in a straight line,” Gatlin said. “We only go backward and forward. There’s no swashbuckling or waving your sword around.”

That comment caused Knutzen and Alfaro to smile at each other.

“Well, Gabriel and I sometimes wave our swords around like pirates, but it’s more for fun,” Knutzen said. “We only do it when (Jessica) steps out of the room.”

In classical style, fencers might circle each other or stab someone in the back. Even with the simpler Olympic style, Knutzen likes the strategizing.

“You’re not just stabbing at each other,” he said. “There are rules for who you can stab. You have to establish a right-of-way. If you don’t, even if you were to make contact, you cannot score.”

Alfaro enjoys the sport for similar reasons.

“It’s kind of like chess, with a lot of jumping and actual combat,” he said. “You have to assess your opponent. Nigel has the best reach (in the club). He’s able to hit us from farther away, so we have to take that into account. I have to figure out a way to bypass his reach and get to him first.”

Fencing can result in injury, even with protective clothing and even though foils have rubber or plastic buttons on the ends of blades.

Gatlin suffered a minor leg wound once when the button came off her opponent’s foil.

“(My parents) have seen bruises every now and then, but they know I’m going to heal from them,” Alfaro said. “They’re OK with it.”

“I think this sport is less injury prone than some sports. It’s unlikely that you’re going to break a bone, as opposed to rugby or football. I’m just as likely to get bruised running into something.”

This fall, the SIUE Fencing Club will meet for practice from 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays in Group Activity Room 2 of the Student Fitness Center.

Students need not be experienced to join. The cost is $25 in dues and $10 to become a U.S.A. Fencing member.

“Martial arts can be intimidating, whereas fencing is easy to learn,” Knutzen said. “It’s easy to pick up. You can learn the basics of fencing in 30 minutes, but it can take a long time to master it.”

At a glance

What: Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Fencing Club

When: Practices from 4 to 6 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays

Where: Group Activity Room 2 at SIUE Student Fitness Center

Information: Contact Jessica Gatlin at 618-917-5063 (call or text) or email

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