Fencing teaches all the right things: sportsmanship, inclusion and competition

Griswold — Tim Menard, the coach at Norwich Free Academy, fist bumps Nick Costa, the kid from New London High.

In the middle of an athletic event.

Shall we hit the pause button?

Because this deserves some contemplation.

Fraternization between NFA vs. New London? Hmmm. Imagine if, a few years ago now, R.J. Evans makes a free throw during a basketball game for NFA and Chop Parker, New London's coach, walks to the free throw line and the two partake in some dabbing.

Please. But some NFA/New London fellowship took place Saturday in the gym at Griswold High, site of the Eastern Connecticut Conference fencing championships.

OK. So maybe some of you stopped reading right there. Fencing. Weird. Masks and swords.

And yet ...

What might have looked like an obscure endeavor to a novice fencing observer turned into a narrative on all the things we want sports to teach: sportsmanship, inclusion and competition.

"Nick works out at the same fencing club as some of our kids and we all have a great relationship," Menard was saying Saturday. "When I can help them, I will. We have a bunch of great kids throughout that are fierce competitors on the strip but friends when they're off it. They understand that their whole life's not going to be fencing. They need friends going forward. It's unique to fencing that it's this close throughout the whole community."

There's more: Menard and Nick's dad, Al Costa, hope some grant money comes through next year to start at fencing club at Bennie Dover. Menard and Costa, who both work security at 36 Waller St., are part of an entertaining floor show there every day. Their senses of humor are like their American Express Card: They never leave home without it.

Not long after the NFA/New London glasnost came this: Bacon Academy fencer Emily Denker became injured during her match. She sat on the floor of the gym and awaited the trainer. Her opponent, Sarah Diaz of East Lyme, sat next to her for the duration. They maintained eye contact and engaged in meaningful conversation, an illustration of sportsmanship straight from the manual.

"Very honorable," East Lyme coach Keith Knight said.

And the fencers shall lead us.

Because here we learned that true sportsmanship is not kids reading off cue cards before the game starts or the robotic handshake line after. True sportsmanship is Menard and Costa; Diaz and Denker.

A panoramic view of the gym here Saturday would have been its own infomercial for fencing. And not just because everyone was fencing. This is a sport for anyone and everyone. The kids come in all shapes and sizes, ethnicities and backgrounds. And the uniformity of their uniforms belies what's truly revealed. Sometimes, putting on the mask unearths part of their personalities during the competitive part that doesn't necessarily show up every day in the halls of school.

"It can be a sport for everybody because it requires so many diverse skills," Menard said. If you are really good and fast with footwork, you can be a little lacking with blade work; if you have good blade control you can stand there and not move at all. If somebody has an injury or a handicap in some way, they can still continue to fence. They can figure out a way to be competitive in their age group and skill level.

"It's also a sport you can take into old age. I still fence with the kids. They regularly beat me. That's what I want them to do. But when I'm at my best physical shape for my age, I give some of them have a hard time. I have more experience, but their speed and endurance is really good. But out a bunch of people my same age, I could fence till I'm 80."

(Menard's friends would probably pay to see that.)

Meanwhile, the sports grows within the ECC. The gym at Griswold was full Saturday. What the people saw inside was how sportsmanship, inclusion and camaraderie really can't be legislated. They happen because the dramatis personae want them to. Maybe because this is a sport for everyone that everyone is accepted. Whatever the reason, it's quite the fraternity.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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