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By Journalist Name, staff writer Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram Wednesday, July 19, 2006


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WESTBROOK — Sam Schack was nearly 10 when his parents thought he should learn to play tennis. They took him to the Portland Athletic Center in Falmouth, where instead he discovered, in a doubles alley, a woman in white wielding a weapon. "I thought it was much cooler than tennis," Schack said of his introduction to fencing.
The woman turned out to be Nancy Reynolds, who has since moved her Portland Fencing Center to the top floor of Westbrook's Dana Warp Mill.
Earlier this month in Atlanta, Reynolds watched Schack thrust and parry on a raised platform in the gold medal match at the United States Fencing Association Summer National Champ- ionships.
Schack, now 17 and soon to enter his junior year at Deering High, emerged from a field of 213 to earn second place in Division III men's épée - one of three weapons used in fencing.
"It's an accomplishment just to get to the gold medal bout," Reynolds said. "No one from Maine has ever won a national gold medal and Sam came three touches from it."
Schack is one of three Maine teenagers who qualified and competed in the national championships. Cara Taggersell, 15, of Kennebunk and Mitchell Brooks, 16, of Peaks Island also traveled to Atlanta along with PFC members Reynolds, Adam Ivy and Scott MacEachern of Brunswick.
Reynolds and MacEachern - a Bowdoin College professor of archeology - are in their mid-40s. Ivy, 23, fenced at Drew University and is an assistant coach to Reynolds. He lives in Buxton.
Noah Isaacson of Cumberland and Greg McIntyre of Falmouth also qualified for nationals but chose not to compete.
"It's a great sport," said Schack, who runs track at Deering. "They call it physical chess," for the demands required from both muscles and mind.
"It takes a great sense of timing, then there's the hand-eye coordination," he continued. "Plus you need a lot of leg strength, particularly in your upper quads. "
Schack spoke between bouts on a recent weeknight at the mill, where 10 fencers took turns dueling on two of three long strips roughly the size and width of a shuffleboard court.
Front foot heel-and-toeing in forward and reverse, perpendicular back foot hopping along in balletic rhythm, the fencers clashed in stops and starts beneath the unwavering gaze of a large sailfish - "We call it a swordfish," Reynolds said - that once graced the old Cotton Street Cantina.
Light poured in through several large windows. Fencers wore white knickers and mesh face masks and metallic vests that, when poked by an opponent's foil, produced a "beep" and a red or green light from a device on the wall.
A wire runs through each foil and plugs into a body cord worn by each fencer. This cord, in turn, plugs from the backside of each fencer into an overhead pulley system that leads to the scoring lights.
"It is really weird when you start out," said Brooks, who learned about fencing from a fellow Peaks Islander. "But it's a great sport. You're trying to figure our your opponent. The whole head-game thing is my favorite part of it."
Whereas Schack and Taggersell both had nationals experience, Brooks was making his first such trip, having qualified through a regional event.
"It's so huge," he said of the event featuring 3,400-plus competitors. "It just blows you away that there can be that many fencers."
Besides the foil and pe, fencers also compete with a saber. Most specialize in one weapon. For Taggersell, that weapon is the foil.
She had hoped her third visit to nationals would be a charm. Instead, it overlapped with her worst week of mononucleosis.
"I had been hoping for a top-four finish in Division II women's foil," she said. "Instead I was 28th out of 190. So I did OK, I did the best I could with what I had."
Last year in Sacramento, Calif., Taggersell placed ninth in under-14 women's foil. She developed a yearning to fence as a 7-year-old, did some Internet research at 8 and presented her father with the PFC phone number and a request for lessons.
"Fencing is my passion," she said. "I just love it as a sport . . . as everything."
At Kennebunk High, Taggersell wrote a sophomore research paper on fencing. She learned about depictions of fencing discovered in ancient Roman caves.
"It's a sport that originated in ancient times and is still a modern sport," she said. "You can't say that about many sports."
Taggersell also plays soccer and snowboards. She assists Reynolds at summer camps for Curious Musketeers, as Reynolds calls her youngest students. In return, Taggersell fences as often as she likes on the burnished wooden boards of the old mill.
"She's done an amazing job, especially with the younger kids," said Kathleen Taggersell, Cara's mom, of Reynolds. "The center has grown tremendously since she moved into this facility (in 2000). She's got a whole wave of kids who are around 12 years old coming up."
One PFC member, Jimmy Einsiedler, recently returned from his first year in college, where he fenced for Johns Hopkins University. Taggersell, Schack and Brooks all say they plan to follow suit.
"She's really grooming these kids to fence in college, which I don't think anyone thought about when they started at 12," Kathleen Taggersell said. "They were just having fun with a sword."
Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or by e-mail.