ROSELAND — Armed with a handful of tennis balls, Matthias Jamison-Koenig leads a small group of students through a series of drills, alternating between playful ribbing and heartfelt encouragement.
It’s been three days since Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep’s fledgling fencing team returned from one of their first competitions at New Trier High School. While the tournament netted several wins, on Tuesday the Roseland team was getting back to business, working on their form, speed and agility by catch-and-releasing tennis balls.
Jamison-Koenig tossed a ball to each team member, each of them lunging forward, hand extended, to grab it.
“When you’re relaxed, you’re fast. Meet the ball, shake hands with it,” he advised.
Jamison-Koenig fell into fencing while in undergrad at University of Chicago in the mid-aughts. When he saw his friends doing it, he figured he’d give it a try. Now he’s introducing it to a new generation. When he isn’t teaching kids how to parry and joust, he’s teaching them science and math at the CPS selective-enrollment school on the city’s Far South Side, where he has been teaching for about seven years.
“We’re part of the Great Lakes Conference, which is a fairly small conference with 15 schools, but fencing itself is a fairly small community,” said Jamison-Koenig, who has been coaching and refereeing high school and college teams for the last decade. “We’ve got 16 kids, but only 15 are eligible to compete. There’s an eighth-grader who has to wait until next year because it’s a ninth through 12th program.”
When Jamison-Koenig started the program several years ago, there weren’t enough students to even fill a bus. On a good year he’d see three to four kids, who would travel with him to various competitions. But soon, kids spread the word to their friends, and interest grew.
“When they see their friends doing it, they want to get into it, too. But, this is a club team for fun. No one’s training hardcore or trying to get scholarships off of this. The ones that are have been training since they were eight,” the coach said.
Still, he encourages his team to make it out to the Red Star Fencing Club, 3735 W. Belmont Ave. in Avondale, during the summer or in the off-season to practice. So far, one student has taken him up on the offer and is now taking lessons from the same coach who trained Jamison-Koening when he was starting out.
“Fencing is a welcoming sport. America and France have two of the most diverse teams in the world,” Jamison-Koenig said. “Even within our conference, Marian Catholic and Homewood-Flossmoor have a pretty diverse mixture.”
And the Midwest fencing community is a positive, supportive one, he added. Other teams have come out to root Gwendolyn Brooks on, practice with them and share snacks.
But the sport can be pricey. Jamison-Koenig estimated that he’s spent nearly $5,000 of his own money in the last two years, the bulk of it covering tournament entrance fees and equipment.
The community has come to his rescue, too.
“Sometimes I’ll get equipment from college teams who aren’t allowed to give stuff away because of NCAA regulations,” he said. “They’ll sell a $400 scoring machine to me for like, $20.”
When the team at University of Chicago cleaned house, they dropped bags of equipment in his car, no questions asked.
“Lincoln Park had a team in the ’70s, but it’s not a terribly popular sport, so when it was time to cut the budget, they’re not going to cut football, they’re going to cut the obscure sport know one cares about,” Jamison-Koenig said. “It’s never going to be an IHSA sport, and will never be because it’s too small.”
What Gwendolyn Brooks lacks in financial support, the school makes up for in moral support and the occasional $500 to cover entrance fees, which typically cost $250-$300 per event. Not unreasonable, he said, as it breaks down to about $20 per student.
“Startup costs are expensive, but maintenance costs aren’t that bad. I think that’s a strong explanation as to why there haven’t been too many schools doing this,” he said. “When you look at schools like New Trier and Culver Academy, they have the resources.”
This is student Paige Washington’s third year fencing.
“There was a seminar where they were like, ‘Do you like stabbing people with swords?’ and I was like, ‘Yes!'” she recalled. “So I like, immediately joined. Then I asked, ‘Can you really stab people with swords?’ and he said, ‘It depends on how hard you work.’ I never forgot that.”
Before fencing, Washington had tried her hand at cheerleading but couldn’t truly get into it. Fencing makes her feel powerful, and the level of sportsmanship she’s seen while on the team has inspired her.
“A friend had fenced another girl from an opposing team. When she fell and hit her knee, the girl from the other team rushed to see if she was OK, and then gave her a hug after the match was over,” Washington said. “I’ve made a bunch of acquaintances. Nicest bunch of people I’ve ever met.”
Washington’s family comes to cheer her on at meets, and while her grandmother isn’t able to join, she tells everyone she knows about her “grandbaby,” the fencer.
“Most of my life has revolved around academics, so to be able to do this means a lot,” said Washington, who also loves science and musical theater. “I want to stick with this.”
If Washington isn’t able to find a fencing club while in college, she said she’ll look for a program similar to Red Star, “where you can train with all types of people.”
“This has been fun,” she said. “Amazing.”
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