Physical Chess

On any given weeknight, the gym at 1345 Monroe Avenue is filled with people. Shoes shuffle on the gleaming hardwood floors, coaches shout out conditioning drills, and the scoring system beeps repeatedly. Basketball practice? No, it's fencing, a fast-growing sport with a surprisingly solid history right here in Grand Rapids.

Called "maestro" by his students, Grand Rapids Advanced Fencing Academy  coach Mikhail Sarkisov has been orchestrating the sport in West Michigan since he emigrated from Russia in 1993. A former member and medalist on the Soviet National Fencing Team, Sarkisov, 46, and his brother Arkadiy have grown the academy from four students at its inception to more than 120 students today.

"At first, we didn't have space to train, so we used the hallways of an elementary school in Rockford and we held classes at the Michigan Athletic Club," says Sarkisov, who balances his duties as GRAFA's head coach and his job as a computer engineer at Alticor Inc. in Ada. The brothers acquired their first space of 2,900 square feet at 800 Monroe, and outgrew it in a year and a half. Their new location boasts 6,000 square feet.

The growth has been especially swift in the last couple years as the sport has received more exposure. "Since the Olympic games, membership has doubled," says Sarkisov. "We're growing so much that we're in need of more coaches."

Learning to coach
One of GRAFA's current coaches, Allyson Swanson, started at the academy as a student eight years ago. "I was horrible at every other sport – uncoordinated, not very athletic," says Swanson, 20, a French major at Grand Valley State University. "I saw Pirates of the Carribean or some swashbuckling movie, searched fencing on-line, found GRAFA, and started the day I came in. I've been addicted ever since."

Swanson, Tory Peterson, and Joseph Williams serve as assistant coaches at the academy. All three are Grand Rapids natives as well as students at the academy. Sarkisov likes the continuity in coaching that the academy provides. "Tory, Joseph, and Allyson are also students," he says. "When Arkadiy and I can't be here, we know the younger students will be taught in the correct way because these coaches have been students themselves for seven or eight years."

With students ranging in age from seven years old to adult, the coaching staff keeps busy by traveling to national tournaments, hosting fencing camps and competitions at the academy, and teaching classes and private lessons.

Despite its growth, GRAFA continues to take a personal approach to coaching its students. "Every single kid has potential," says Sarkisov. "It's up to the coach and the parents to capitalize on a child's potential." Sarkisov was honored as the 2004 Developmental Coach of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The coaches see a shift in attitudes toward fencing as the sport gains popularity. "In the past, some kids - especially boys - have used this sport as an alternative, maybe because they didn't make the basketball team," says Sarkisov. While he says some girls tended to come into the sport intentionally, they were the exception. These days, however, "most kids really do their homework before they come here. The opinions have changed. Kids think it is interesting, tough, and challenging."

Swanson sees the benefits of fencing firsthand as she teaches the beginning classes. "Obviously, their coordination improves and they get more comfortable with their bodies. They get more confident. It's really good for teaching sportsmanship, respect, and taking something good out of every encounter." And because it's an individual sport, she says, you have to count on your own hard work to be successful.

Sarkisov agrees, saying, "Basic fencing is a balancing of the physical and mental aspects of the program. By age 15, 16, 17, students should be learning to balance the two successfully. It's physical chess." Two alumni of the academy, Sarkisov's daughter and niece, balance the two impressively; each currently fences on scholarship for Northwestern University and Notre Dame, respectively.

Commitment to fencing
Just a few miles away at 1111 Godfrey SW, the coaches of the West Michigan Fencing Academy are similarly proud of their growing club. Head coach Mike Nemecek, 54, and his wife Barb, 50, are part of a group of volunteers committed to making fencing more accessible to Grand Rapidians.

A non-profit, WMFA was founded in 1989 and began as a small group of enthusiastic amateur fencers even before it incorporated. "All the equipment we had was in our van for seven years straight," laughs Barb, who volunteers as the academy's office manager.

Since then, WMFA has grown rapidly, too, a fact Nemecek attributes to "the Olympics, perseverance, and publicity about our daughter." Ironically, Samantha Nemecek was also a scholarship fencer at Northwestern University, and now coaches WMFA's other 120 or so students who range in ability from novice to medalists at National and World Cup events.

Debra Kelch of Caledonia, 52, spends a lot of her free time at WMFA now that her 15-year-old daughter, Kayla, has begun fencing there. Kayla took a four-day fencing clinic through school a year ago and "fell in love with it," her mother says.

Social aspects
Debra Kelch is enthusiastic both about the sport and involvement of parents, students, competitors and coaches. "I can't say enough good things," she says. "Fencing teaches you about competition, work ethic, and patience. And even though it's a sport that takes years to learn, the coaches here are great whether you want to fence socially or competitively.

"There's a wonderful community of fencing families. People are very competitive on the strip, but when the competition is over, people are welcoming and there's camaraderie in the group," she says, noting that Kayla spends an average of four nights at week at the academy in addition to traveling for tournaments.

Though fencing may have been viewed as obscure or elitist in the past, Barb Nemecek believes that has changed. "More and more, people are starting to think about fencing as something they'd like to try," she says. The club is committed to letting people try the sport inexpensively and recreationally, and Nemecek thinks Grand Rapids is a particularly good place for that to happen.

"Any place where you have people who love sport and competition, who are always looking for something new to try, and who are interested in breaking down walls – that's a good place for fencing to grow."

Come June, fencers from across the state will get to compete here in Grand Rapids when WMFA will be the official sponsor of the fencing event for the inaugural State Games of Michigan.  With two thriving clubs in such close proximity, Grand Rapidians should be en garde for some quality duels.

Stephanie Doublestein writes and blogs about food, business, and parenting, among other things. She lives in East Grand Rapids with her husband and their two young daughters.


Mikhail Sarkisov, former member and medalist on the Soviet National Fencing Team, founder of Grand Rapids Advanced Fencing Academy

Mike Nemecek, founder of non-profit,  West Michigan Fencing Academy

Mikhail Sarkisov "maestro" working one on one with student.

Gear Rack, West Michigan Fencing Academy

Student match, West Michigan Fencing Academy

Mike Nemecek with daughter Samantha, West Michigan Fencing Academy

Mikhail Sarkisov, Grand Rapids Advanced Fencing Academy

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved

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