On a late June afternoon in west Harlem, New York, students slowly trickle into the Democracy Prep charter school gym.
The 34 x 72 foot space is down in the basement and features a yellow floor, a pair of basketball hoops and a handful of championship banners hung on the wall: middle-school soccer, girls varsity basketball, girls volleyball. By 1:30, there are twelve girls and eleven boys, representing grades 9 though 12. They sport t-shirts and sweats and sit on the floor, talking and laughing. A casual observer might think this is the start of a gym class, or maybe even a theater rehearsal. But when Democracy Prep's athletic director Dennis Wolfe marches in, that casual observer might not believe his or her ears. "Okay everyone," Wolfe barks. "We're ready to start our fencing tournament."
Fencing? In Harlem? Three years ago, organized dueling in an inner-city gym would have seemed about as likely as a polo match. But back in 2013, a non-profit program called Fencing in Schools began introducing the sport to some unlikely participants, and a quick glance along the gym's back wall reveals a carefully laid out array of protective masks, padded white jackets, gloves, breast plates, and a row of metal sabers, one of the three types of fencing blades.
Wolfe, with his shaved head, large tattoo on his calf, and the overall build of a small offensive lineman, now points to the tall stranger beside him. "This is Tim Morehouse, the man behind Fencing in Schools," he says. "He's going to give us a few tips today before the tournament. And listen up, because in 2008, he won a silver medal at the Olympics."
The Democracy Prep kids snap their fingers-their school-endorsed way of showing approval-and listen intently as Morehouse gives a brief version of his story, his inspiration for starting the program, and his future plans. Fencing in Schools began, he tells them, right here at Democracy Prep. Three years later, the program has grown to 50 schools in seven states and has reached 15,000 kids. And if Morehouse has his way, one day soon, a tournament like this one will be taking place in every school in America.
As the students in the basement happily zip and snap themselves up in preparation for their dueling, Wolfe remembers a time when they weren't quite so game. "The first day I presented fencing in PE class," he says, "they thought it was the dumbest thing ever."
One of those doubters was Deion Thomas, a tall, rangy senior who was born and raised here in west Harlem. "I didn't even know what fencing was," says the 18 year-old as he pulls on a snug white protective jacket. "I thought it was like Tae Kwon Do. Just crazy." He wasn't alone. Few students had ever been exposed to the sport, and many thought it sounded scary, even dangerous. Wolfe's own mother had concerns. "She called me and said 'you're gonna give these kids weapons in school?'" Wolfe recalls with a laugh. "I told her 'I guess so!'"
Morehouse can relate. As an insecure, introverted, youngster growing up in nearby Washington Heights, he'd never heard of fencing. But at age 13, he was lucky enough to transfer to the more upscale Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, and he soon found himself on the fencing team. "It brought out something special in me," says the now 36 year-old. While he was admittedly not very good at first, he never gave up, and by the time he reached his senior year at Brandeis University, he was named a Division I All-American. Four years after serving as an alternate at the Athens Olympics, he won silver in Beijing.
By launching Fencing in Schools, Morehouse wanted to expose as many kids as possible to the same rewards he had gleaned from the sport, rewards that weren't limited to simply excelling in competition, but that impacted every aspect of his life, building his self esteem, confidence and discipline while inspiring better behavior and improved grades. "The focus is always on professional athletes, but they're such a small percentage of those playing sports," Morehouse says. "People forget that every day, sports have a huge impact on kids' lives."
Kids like Deion Thomas. Back when Morehouse was battling for his silver medal, Thomas was struggling to stay in school. Whether it was tardiness, clowning around, or ignoring the dress code, Thomas spent nearly as much time in detention as he did in class. "He was a tough kid," Wolfe says. "He didn't want to do anything or listen to anyone."
When the administrators of Democracy Prep heard Morehouse's pitch, they understood the impact something like fencing could have on a student like Thomas.
"We saw it as an amazing opportunity," says Alice Maggin, Communications Director for the 14 nationwide Democracy Prep charter schools. "We love putting kids out of their comfort zone," Maggin says, likening the FITS program to Democracy Prep's compulsory Korean language classes. "With our limited space, it could be done anywhere. Plus, it offered a skill set nobody in the neighborhood would have." Then there was the cost to the school itself: $0. Fencing in Schools would provide all the necessary equipment plus help train existing gym teachers how to become effective fencing instructors.
In the spring of 2013, Fencing in Schools launched at the six New York City Democracy Prep locations as part of their Physical Education curriculum, and all the skepticism lasted about as long as a lunch period. "Once we went over the basics and the students took control, they loved it," says Wolfe. "It was so cool," says sophomore Nate Stewart. "The footwork, the coordination, the focus. And it doesn't just make you sweat, it makes you think." As the first classes progressed, Wolfe soon realized there were far more benefits to fencing than he had initially thought. For one, it was gender neutral: The girls could compete with-and often beat-the boys. In fact, the first two Democracy Prep tournaments were won by girls. "I'm small, but I can bob and weave and use that to my advantage," says Destiny Ware, now a two-year fencing veteran. What's more, since fencing relies far more on balance and strategy than on the speed, strength and athleticism of 'traditional' sports, kids of all shapes, sizes and
skill levels can excel. Lastly, fencing is an individual sport, so no one would be left sitting on the sidelines, and all the kids would get an invaluable lesson in self-discovery. "They got to see what they are made of, and what they could accomplish by themselves," says Wolfe. "I explained to them how important that is, because down the line, they're going to be on job interviews where they'll be completely on their own." The poster child for the benefits of the FITS program just might be Malachi Porcher. While he loved sports, Malachi never had an easy time playing them. Born with Blount's disease, a condition that made him bow-legged, he had limited movement. The more time he spent on his feet, the more they hurt. But two years ago, he picked up a saber and it changed everything. "Fencing is all about smaller steps, so it worked for me," Porcher says. He watched fencing videos and practiced at home. Soon enough, he was dueling no differently than all the other kids in his class.
"Being in that moment while you're fencing is amazing," he says. "And I was better than I thought I'd be." And just because he graduated this spring, that doesn't mean he plans to give up the sport. "I'm heading to Boston University," he says. "I'm going to try fencing there."
With the success of the Democracy Prep pilot program, Fencing in Schools quickly spread. Within a year, there were kids with similar stories in forty schools over seven states, as far afield as Idaho, Illinois and Maine. PE teachers put their personal touches on the training regimens, and by Morehouse's estimation, fencing had reached some 10,000 students.
But Fencing in Schools' road to success soon became rocky. The culprit? Costs. Even the most basic fencing set-blade, jacket, mask, and gloves-costs upwards of $150. Then there are the springs and screws in the tip of every weapon that require regular servicing. Plus, there wasn't much equipment to go around. That meant schools had to return their fencing sets at the end of each semester so that other FITS schools could use them. Students looking to join after-school clubs or even varsity teams were out of luck.
FITS's fortunes turned when Morehouse discovered the Dick's Sporting Goods Sports Matter program. Up to that point, he'd struck out with the big companies that often provide sponsorships or grant money to sports programs, as they were reluctant to invest in something as seemingly marginal as fencing. Morehouse clearly remembers the day he got the good news about the matching grant. "We were thrilled," he says. "But we had work to do." Crowdfunding work. Even though the fencing community is small, Morehouse says, it's tight-knit, passionate and loyal. Within a month, FITS had amassed the required $50,000. "I can't overstate how huge that was," explains Morehouse. "The money we raised that was then matched by the Dick's Sporting Goods Foundation covered a third of our budget for the year. It put foils directly in the hands of kids from Newark to Chicago to Pocatello, and it was a big reason we were able to bring the program to 15,000 kids this year."
Back at Democracy Prep, the tournament gets underway. The students have split into two teams with Wolfe joining Thomas's squad to make for even numbers. One fencer from each team will face off, and the first to two points wins. It's a short match, but the format keeps the tournament moving and helps ensure that all the students get to duel several times.
As the first two fencers take their marks, the students start bubbling with anticipation. Through the masks, faces glow with broad smiles. This is what Morehouse saw the first day he presented Fencing in Schools to an assembly: joy, enthusiasm, wonder.
When Thomas steps up, his classmates are particularly rapt. Once a liability at Democracy Prep, he has become a leader, a role model, and a young man who, when Wolfe took a two-week absence after the birth of his son, helped the substitute teacher run gym class rather than disrupting it. He's a soon-to-be freshman at Sage College in Albany, and he's already glimpsed what he's really made of, and what he can accomplish.
Forty-five minutes later, the tournament ends. Thomas's squad has won. But there is one last ceremonial duel to come: Thomas vs. Morehouse, first to three points wins. All the students stand up and hover giddily. "En guard!" yells the judge as the Olympic medalist and the one-time troublemaker carefully size each other up. Thomas attacks, but Morehouse easily-and playfully-blocks the onslaught, deftly tapping his opponent's wrist. Morehouse 1, Thomas 0. The next point plays out much the same: 2-0. Thomas then changes tactics. He pauses, not rushing in, then, without warning, he leaps forward off his feet in a sort of karate-man/superhero move. He clips Morehouse on the arm. The Prep onlookers can't believe what they've just seen.
But on the next point, Thomas cannot level the score. After a brief back and forth, Morehouse scores the match winner. Everyone cheers. The two fencers shake hands. Thomas takes off his mask as sweat drips from his temples.
"I couldn't take him, he's way too fast," Thomas says with a smile. "But he did say I created a brand new move."