First use of new campus: fencing

First use of new campus: fencing

Olympic hopefuls train in Marlboro under the guidance of a silver medalist

MARLBORO — The first non-Marlboro-College program to take place on its former campus drew 20 fencing athletes, along with seven coaches and a few parents, to the property now owned by Democracy Builders Fund and its Degrees of Freedom program.

Students of the Tim Morehouse Fencing Club trained on campus as part of the school's annual summer camp program.

The founder of the eponymous program, Morehouse, who earned a silver medal at the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, said that holding the summer camps is a way for students to focus on building skills in the sport.

Holding the camp in Vermont this summer helped the students get away from some of the pandemic's stresses, he said.

Last summer, students stayed at Cornell University. This summer, they drove to southern Vermont.

“For us as teachers, we want to provide our kids with as safe an environment as possible, and also I think it was a good four to five days for the kids to get a way from the world a little bit,” Morehouse said.

“To have the kids be able to focus on fencing for a few days and to be outdoors in the woods and to see the stars at night in Vermont - which were amazing - it was something the kids needed mentally as much as physically.”

The campers and the accompanying adults followed the state's and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's COVID-19 protocols, Morehouse said. [See sidebar.]

For example, the kids were tested for the virus before and after arriving in Vermont in private cars. Everyone who attended tested negative for COVID-19 a week before arrival. All meals were outside, each student had their own room, and students wore face coverings when indoors.

“One of the good things about fencing - and there's been a lot of internet memes about this - it is one of the safer sports to be able to do during COVID,” he said. “It's not a contact sport.”

Fencers wear face coverings, fencing masks, gloves, and have and the fencing swords between them and their opponents, Morehouse said.

Morehouse said the students also took follow-up COVID-19 tests when they returned home, and all results to date have come back negative.

“Our area of New York City and Connecticut are doing really well,” Morehouse said. “Obviously, we were at the front end of what occurred [with the pandemic], so I also think that we take the whole situation really seriously because we were the epicenter at the beginning of this. I don't think anyone wants to go back to that,” he said.

The club's flagship school opened approximately five years ago in Manhattan, and a second school opened a year later in Port Chester, N.Y., in Westchester County. The program operates multiple satellite sites in New York and Connecticut.

The school offers after-school programs usually between September and June. In the summer, it offers weekly youth camps at its facilities and, usually, one annual summer sleep-away camp.

A mix of mind and body

Fencing tends to be a niche sport, Morehouse said, but interest has grown in recent years with the Olympics coming up and with more access to classes and other resources on the internet.

For Morehouse, fencing's allure rests in the sport's mixture of mind and body.

“There's kind of a fencing cliché that fencing is physical chess,” he said. “You need to have the same thinking and strategy as a chess player.”

He feels that many of his students - many of whom do play chess - also tend to have strong academic records and play instruments.

“In order to be a great fencer, you have to be athletic, but I think you also have to have a strategic and tactical mind because the game really is about positioning, selecting the right moves, and puzzle solving,” he said.

Morehouse said that he found the sport “by accident.” As a seventh grader, he spotted a flyer at his school that dangled the option of joining the fencing team as a way of getting out of gym class.

“I was like, 'Cool, I can get out of P.E.,” he recalled. “It was where my journey into this unique sport began.”

Olympic hopefuls

Morehouse holds a master's degree in education and is also the founder of the nonprofit Fencing in the Schools.

“Whether it's a COVID pandemic or not, the safety and well-being of our students and staff is important for us,” he said. “The school's main goal of kids is obviously Olympic teams and national teams, but also being recruited for colleges.”

A few of Morehouse's students are training with hopes to qualify for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, scheduled for this year but now postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic. A big goal for the school itself is to prepare its students to fence for a college team.

The school has grown yearly. Last year's active membership averaged 425 students. The youngest kids are 8 years old; the oldest are high school seniors.

The club's New York and Connecticut facilities reopened a little more than a month ago, and Morehouse said he and the other teachers are learning how to operate safely during the pandemic.

“It actually felt like the camp in Vermont was even safer than some of the day-to-day activities that we're doing [in New York],” he said.

Compared to the school's facilities, located in urban areas where kids travel between class and home, the kids were “contained” on the Marlboro campus.

Chandell Stone, Degrees of Freedom's chief growth officer and director of its director of Freedom Builders Fellowship program [see sidebar],said it felt good to have people on campus which has been mostly empty since Marlboro College students left in the spring semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stone said that one of the reasons Degrees of Freedom agreed to host the summer fencing camp was to experience what it takes to safely bring students to campus during COVID-19. Degrees of Freedom is launching a September Fellowship and plans to launch a fuller secondary degree program, Degrees of Freedom in fall 2021. [See sidebar.]

Morehouse said he would consider holding the camp at the Marlboro campus again. In fact, he's considering holding another camp in Marlboro this fall.

He envisions this camp as a combination of remote learning and fencing. Students would have a “regular” school day, taking the remote classes offered by their home schools. In the afternoons and evenings, they could practice fencing.

“We can't have kids at home indefinitely,” Morehouse said. “Everyone is learning how to make these modifications to our lives to live more safely.”

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