Rory Dwyer, 12, took second in Y12 epee at the North American Cup in Portland in April and was third at the USFA 2008 Summer Nationals earlier this month.

To Live By The Sword

ASHLAND — Brian Dwyer figured his only son was destined to become a gymnast. After all, Dwyer had coached gymnastics at the college level and was eager to impart to young Rory all he could about the nuances of the pommel horse and parallel bars.

But, as any parent can attest, kids often have other ideas.

"My background is in gymnastics and skiing," says Brian, the owner of a construction company who moved his family to Ashland from southern Idaho in 2004. "So I tried to get Rory interested in those two sports. But he has always had a passion for fencing."

Fencing, you may recall, is one of the oldest of Olympic sports, a discipline that traces its roots to 13th-century European sword fighting.

"Back when I was young, I liked swords and medieval stuff," Rory, now 12, recalls. "So when I saw there was a sport of fencing, I got interested in it."

That was a bit more than three years ago. While out shopping for groceries one day, Brian and his wife, Karen, saw a flyer for the Southern Oregon Fencing Center. They signed Rory up, purchased a beginner's suit and sword and waited to see what might develop.

The results seem to validate Rory's choice. Having only practiced the sport for less than four years, Dwyer took third place in the Y12 division of epee competition in the 2008 U.S. Fencing Association Summer Nationals earlier this month in San Jose, Calif.

"Rory's come on like a little tiger," says maestro John McDougall, director of the SOFC and Rory's first coach.

A year earlier, Dwyer captured the gold medal in both the foil and epee Y10 at the USFA's Pacific Coast Championship.

Dwyer competes in both foil and epee competitions, but specializes in epee (pronounced EPP-pay), the discipline that uses a slightly heavier sword and counts scoring touches anywhere on an opponent's body. Dwyer finished second among 53 in his 12-and-under group at the North American Cup in Portland in April and was 45th in foil.

He followed that up with a strong showing at nationals, reaching the semifinals before losing a heartbreaking, 5-4 overtime decision to eventual champion Dominic Beecham of Florida. (He placed 67th of 190 competitors in foil.)

"In foil, I got smoked," he recalls. "In epee, I was kind of tired, but still did pretty well."

In epee, top competitors use their swords as both offensive and defensive weapons, blocking opponents' charge and often scoring with a counter-thrust on their own.

"I have two favorite tricks," Rory says. "One is a lunge to the toe. And when people attack at me, I use a fore parry, block them outside and then nail them."

Speed, agility and the ability to anticipate an opponent's next move are all integral qualities of a successful fencer.

At just 4-foot-9, Rory often fences competitors more than a foot taller than he.

"Rory has no fear of older or taller people," says Bruno Goosen of Jacksonville, a former world master champion who began coaching Dwyer last year. "He fences like a snake. He gets under you."

Dwyer started taking lessons from McDougall and Ron Kilby at the SOFC three years ago. Because he was one of the youngest fencers in the group, he gained experience by battling opponents much older.

"Rory doesn't have his full strength yet, but he does very well against older people," McDougall says.

While many of the center's 40-plus members enjoy the sport recreationally, it was clear early on that Dwyer was serious about competing. During the season, which generally runs from September through July, he practices 10 to 12 hours per week.

"You can do it once a week for a hobby or be really competitive," he says.

He's somewhat outgrown the competition at the SOFC and last season spent substantial time working with Goosen, a French native and former member of the French modern pentathlon team. Goosen's 17-year-old son, Lucas, is also an accomplished fencer and a senior-to-be at South Medford High School.

"He came with a good toolbox and we added some tools," Goosen says of Dwyer. "There are some specific moves in epee. You work more on counter attacks and specific targets and strategies."

Once his father saw Rory's commitment, he was quick to jump on board.

"He's been really focused on fencing," Brian Dwyer says. "That's what he really wants to do."

Between equipment, coaching, lessons, competition fees and travel expenses, Brian estimates he spent between $7-8,000 last season.

"I get to watch him grow," Brian says. "We work out together. When we go to the big tournaments, I'm his sideline coach."

And the gymnastics background hasn't been a total loss, either.

"We start with warm-ups, running and push-ups," Brian says of their workout routine. "Then we go into stretching. And from there we start to do some fencing. We'll either do drills or just fence."

Living in Ashland has been a slight disadvantage, simply because the area doesn't offer the abundance of fencers found in Portland or some California metro areas. The SOFC closed its Ashland salle in June, and while classes are available at Rogue Community College's Medford campus and the Ashland YMCA, the future remains unclear.

"People in Portland and San Francisco have hundreds of fencers, so they're sponsoring tournaments every weekend," McDougall says.

Dwyer, who will be in seventh grade at Willow Wind School next fall, hasn't yet determined his entire schedule for next season. He turns 13 in March, but USFA rules allow anyone who is 12 on Jan. 1 to compete at the Y12 level throughout the season. He has mulled the idea of entering the Y14 division of some tournaments as well.

"Sometimes I just want to challenge myself and face people who are very good," he says.

A possible college scholarship or spot on the national team could be in the offing in years ahead.

"It depends on commitment," McDougall says. "Rory has the potential to be very good."

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