Fencers cross foils at local training camp

Julio Diaz demonstrates foil positioning for students in High Springs
Julio Diaz demonstrates foil positioning for students in High Springs.
Photo by Seth Johnson

Referees have started enforcing attacks in preparation at fencing competitions, Julio Diaz warns.  

“Now, I have to make a decision of breaking his line so I can attack,” Diaz says. “So, how do I do that? He’s got options; I’ve got options.” 

He explains the technical rules, demonstrating with a foil, before the group of 24 attendees pair up to drill the issue.  

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Students spar at Diaz' training camp
Photo by Seth Johnson Students spar at Diaz’ training camp.

It’s 2:30 p.m. as foils and épées start clattering. Participants wear both half and full fencing gear in the 90-degree weather plus humidity. The power has been out for the past two hours, but fans and lights flip back on just before the session.  

Welcome to the inaugural Adult Fencing Camp Retreat at O’Leno State Park just north of High Springs.  

Diaz has lived in Gainesville for six years, moving down from Georgia, but his history with fencing dates to his childhood.  

“I’ve been fencing basically all my life,” Diaz said in an interview at the camp. “My dad was on the Cuban national team and then the Olympic team in Cuba.” 

When the family moved to America, Diaz started the sport as well. He joined the running for the 1996 Olympic junior team but ran out of money to continue, Diaz said with a laugh.  

Even now, fencing receives relatively few sponsors. Diaz said he watched competitive cornhole with a shock at seeing all the sponsor patches littering the athletes’ uniforms. It seemed to him they had as many paid partnerships as NASCAR.  

Diaz still fences competitively, but he focuses on coaching now. Diaz coaches the U.S. Paralympic fencing team as well as UF’s fencing club.  

Students pair up to drill fencing concepts
Photo by Seth Johnson Students pair up to drill fencing concepts.

He said America is starting to hit a groove with the sport long dominated by Russia, France, Italy and Hungary. Diaz attended the Warsaw Para World Cup in early June. He said the U.S. team did fantastic. 

In the past two World Cups, America has had three bronze medals and three top 16 finishes.  

“We’ve never had that before, ” Diaz said. “So, I think we’re turning the corner and making headway with the national team.” 

Diaz also runs the Invictus Fencing Club in Gainesville. His work with the club spurred the camping retreat at O’Leno with participants coming from Orlando, Atlanta and even Seattle.  

The camp lasts five days and is for fencers with some level of experience.  

Jeremy Moore, the other coach at the camp, said he ran everyone through two hours of footwork drills that morning.  

The attendees work in three sessions a day: from 8 a.m. to noon, 2-6 p.m. and 7:30-10:30 p.m. 

In the central building, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, painter’s tape marks the fencing lanes. Within sight out the back windows, the Santa Fe River rolls by.  

28 students showed up at O'Leno State Park to spar and practice
Photo by Seth Johnson 28 students showed up at O’Leno State Park to spar and practice.

Fencing formed one of the first modern Olympic sports in 1896, along with gymnastics, wrestling, shooting, lawn tennis, weightlifting, sailing, rowing and swimming.  

Since the 19th century though, the sport has received a technological upgrade — automatic scoring. An extendable cable plugs into the fencing suit and from the suit to the foil, saber or épée. Another reason having power is so important. 

The pairs of fencers work up and down their lanes with cords hanging taunt behind them. Diaz walks between the groups, watching, commenting, positioning a foil. 

He hopes to continue camps like this and include children’s camps or even elderly camps. He also wants to open a full-time facility for the Invictus Fencing Club in Gainesville. Currently, the members meet at Westside Baptist Church on Mondays and Thursdays.  

Diaz said America’s fencing future looks good for the 2024 Paralympics, and 2028 could be better since the games will be held in Los Angeles, allowing Diaz to field a full squad of 24 fencers. 

“I’m always looking for new fencers for 2028,” Diaz said. “I’m going to need a lot of them to make the team.”  

Three Types of Fencing
Foil: a lighter weapon with only the torso as the target. Hits must be dealt with the point. 
Saber: an “edged” blade with the entire upper body as a target. Hits can be dealt with any part of the blade. 
Épée: a heavier weapon with the entire body open to target. Hits must be dealt with the point. 
Fencing camp photo
Photo by Seth Johnson
Julio Diaz instructs at fencing class
Photo by Seth Johnson Julio Diaz instructs at fencing camp.
Pairing up in fencing
Photo by Seth Johnson
Julio Diaz coaches fencing
Photo by Seth Johnson Coach Julio Diaz.

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Great article on this up-and-coming sport’s club in North Florida. Having fenced myself, I highly recommend it for anyone and everyone of all ages.