En Garde: Simsbury High features unique fencing team
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
• Simsbury High School Has Only Fencing Team In Valley
• Just 4% of High Schools in CT Offer Fencing
This article was first published as the cover story in the April edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
By Bruce Deckert — Editor-in-Chief • Today Magazine
WHEN THE TOPIC is high school athletics, what sports come to mind? From fall to winter to spring, the list likely includes football, soccer, volleyball, basketball, baseball, softball and lacrosse. But if the success of the Simsbury High School Fencing Club is any indication, fencing will become more prominent in the coming years.
If fencing doesn’t appear on your sports radar, it’s no wonder — there are only 20-plus fencing teams among Connecticut’s 550-plus high schools, according to SHS Fencing Club advisor Thomas Palmer. Simsbury is the lone high school in the Farmington Valley that offers fencing.
This season culminated with two state tournaments in March, the individual and team varsity tournaments. Men’s and women’s teams can qualify for the state tournament in each of the three distinct types of fencing — epee, foil and sabre. The Simsbury High men’s epee team reached the state tourney for the third time in the club’s 20-year history. In January, for the first time in program history, the Trojans won five medals at the Connecticut Junior Varsity High School Fencing Tournament.
Simsbury won five more medals at the Novice Tournament in February — the same month that NBC Connecticut broadcast a TV report about the SHS fencing club.
Senior Aleanna Soto claimed gold in women’s epee, and four teammates won bronze medals: sophomore Sasha Schake (women’s sabre), sophomore Aaron “A.J.” Downend (men’s sabre) and senior Elijah Lee and freshman Ethan Vasquez (both in men’s foil — multiple bronze medals are awarded in each category).
This duplicated the best result in club history, matching the five medals at the February 2020 Novice Tournament.
Following is the SHS five-medal rundown at the Junior Varsity tourney:
• Sophomore Muna Nwafor — gold in men’s sabre
• Seniors Simera Robinson (silver) and Sierra Blume (7th-place bronze) in women’s foil
• Seniors Josh Brock and Eldridge Adomako — 5th- and 8th-place bronze (respectively) in men’s epee
“They are phenomenal fencers … Muna cut and slashed his way to victory through three pools of opponents,” Palmer says. “Simera has a touch so quick that she has been compared to a viper, while Sierra uses deception and strategy to put her opponents into position to be hit. They use a multitude of offensive and defensive methods to achieve their victories.”
Nwafor’s winning gold-medal point appeared to come right out of the movie The Matrix, Palmer observes. As Nwafor fell backward until his upper torso was parallel to the floor, he landed his sabre perfectly on the left chest of his opponent.
“The crowd of spectators and fellow fencers were stunned by the precision and athleticism of this final victory point,” says Palmer. “Even his opponent couldn’t believe it.”
VALLEY FENCING INVITE
In addition to being the fencing advisor since November 2018, Palmer is an intervention teacher at Simsbury High, helping at-risk students get back on track academically. He hopes more Valley schools add fencing to their sports repertoire.
“I am trying to get more Farmington Valley high schools involved,” Palmer says. “I receive phone calls every season from parents in the surrounding communities who want to know if their sons and daughters can fence for our team. … Avon, Farmington, Canton and Granby parents have all called me.”
He acknowledges that fencing is expensive and the equipment costs are significant — an electronic fencing vest wired for automatic scoring typically costs more than $200.
“I have talked to Valley athletic directors, and their reasoning for not starting a fencing team is usually tied to start-up costs, number of kids interested and/or unavailable coaching and training staff,” Palmer says. “But I have offered high schools used-but-still-good equipment to get started — what I have offered would essentially cut their start-up costs in half.”
He notes that the SHS Fencing Club has “suffered through every one of these hurdles and we have still been successful.”
Another factor is travel — in terms of both time and finances. Simsbury High’s closest fencing neighbors are Cheshire High School and Cheshire Academy. Since SHS fencing is a club sport, not an official varsity program, “we have to pay for our own buses,” Palmer says. “Transportation costs us a bundle every year.”
“I am trying to get more Farmington Valley high schools involved — I receive phone calls every season from parents in the surrounding communities who want to know if their sons and daughters can fence for our team” — SHS Fencing Club advisor Thomas Palmer
“I’m working on this and many other development aspects related to our program,” Palmer affirms. “When you look at the opportunities, you have to wonder why more local high schools are not building fencing programs.”
The exact number of teams in the Connecticut High School Fencing Association (CHSFA) is difficult to pinpoint because membership can rise or fall each year, he explains, “but we have been rising in the last five years, even with COVID.” He estimates that 21-23 teams competed this past season — see below for a list of 21 of these teams.
Palmer isn’t the team’s coach — the SHS fencing team has an advisor in addition to a coaching staff because it’s a club sport. Head coach Elaine Saunders has three specialty coaches on her staff, one for each of the three types of fencing — assistant epee coach Pieter Roos, assistant foil coach Xavier Braun and assistant sabre coach Juan Changanaqui.
Saunders took the coaching reins in November 2008. She and Braun are Simsbury High graduates who competed on the Trojans fencing team.
Roos has coached the Drew University men’s epee team, and Changanaqui coached the Trinity College sabre team. Braun won a gold medal as an SHS fencer, and he has been fencing with the foil since he was 9 years old.
Asked about the most fulfilling aspect of being head coach, Saunders says, “I always love seeing the kids’ growth and their enthusiasm and love of fencing.”
She graduated from SHS in 2005 and fenced at UMass from 2005 to 2007. Saunders transferred to CCSU, graduating in 2010.
Regarding her hopes for the future, she says, “I’d love to see our numbers stay steady — we finished the season with 36 fencers — and for more kids to keep fencing when they go to college.”
Before Palmer became the advisor in 2018, the club’s numbers fluctuated from year to year, sometimes below 15.
“That’s where the team was struggling most,” Saunders observes. “It was difficult to get new recruits who weren’t already friends with someone else on the team.”
The coach appreciates and applauds Palmer’s creativity — “in every aspect of the word.”
“Tom is creative in his recruiting of potential incoming fencers,” she says. “He talks up the team, gets kids excited, and makes it possible for kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to commit due to time or transportation issues to participate.”
Palmer’s inventiveness is likewise evident in the team logos he has designed — “the kids love the designs,” Saunders notes.
The advisor has been both innovative and old-school with fundraising: “I would never have thought it was possible to raise the amount of money he has, simply from returning bottles and cans,” she says.
Before Palmer became advisor, the club was in fair shape financially, but he has raised the bar.
“The equipment we had was OK, but nothing special,” Saunders says. “Tom has higher standards and a vision of how the team could look that went beyond what I would have thought possible. Now our equipment stands out from the rest of the clubs.”
He has also upgraded the SHS traveling component. Pre-Palmer, fencers were expected to arrange their own transportation to scrimmages and most tournaments.
“We only took a bus to the state varsity tournament,” Saunders recalls. “I never would have thought it possible for us to [take] buses to all away events.”
SHS fencers recognize the impact of the coaching staff on their accomplishments. Nwafor, the gold-medal winner, credits his remarkable sophomore success to Changanaqui and former SHS sabre coach Marton Wiszkidenszky.
“With two more years of training and my great coaches, they say I might be able to go on to fence sabre for a Division I college fencing team,” Nwafor says.
Meanwhile, seniors Brock and Eldridge have different perspectives on the SHS fencing program. Brock has been a club member since his freshman year — working his way up through the ranks to become a captain of the epee team — while Adomako joined the team this season. They credit much of their success to Roos.
“The Simsbury High fencing team has one of the best coaching staffs in the state,” says Palmer. “We have raised the fencing standard at SHS, and our kids have met that standard and said: How much higher can we go, Coach?”
“The sky’s the limit,” Palmer adds. “We had a phenomenal season, receiving numerous medals and accolades, and I am extremely proud of our fencing team — but we are hungry for more, and there is much more on the table to be had.” +
Facebook > SHS Fencing Club
High School Fencing Teams in Connecticut
Daniel Hand High
Marine Science Magnet High
Milford Combined High
The Morgan School
North Branford High
Norwich Free Academy
Robert E. Fitch High
• Source — Simsbury High School Fencing Club