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Getting the Thrust : 86-Year-Old Fencer Foils Aging Process as Inspired Instructor of a Refined Art

July 28, 1988|RALPH NICHOLS | Times Staff Writer

A slight, elderly man points to a pile of tattered newspaper and magazine clippings scattered across the table. A youthful, virile-looking fencer is pictured in several clippings, demonstrating the proper stance for dueling.

Although Duris de Jong, 86, no longer resembles the swashbuckling fencer pictured in the articles from the 1930s and '40s, he's still able to parry an opponent's sword or elude the touch of a foil's blade.

Three times a week, De Jong drives the two miles from his Thousand Oaks home to the Conejo Community Center, where he teaches the art of fencing to yet another generation. At the conclusion of each 90-minute class, De Jong returns home to the more than 150 medals and trophies he's collected in 67 years of fencing.

Prominently displayed on De Jong's bedroom wall are the commemorative badges he received at the 1928 and 1932 Olympic Games along with numerous tarnished brass medals earned during his 25 years on the Los Angeles Athletic Club fencing team. De Jong, a native of Amsterdam, competed in fencing in both Olympics for the Netherlands.

After competing in his hometown of Amsterdam in the '28 Olympics, De Jong emigrated to the United States and was a Los Angeles resident when he competed in the '32 Games. De Jong was eliminated in the semifinals of both Olympics.

"The medals represent a lot of hard work and cover a lot of years," said De Jong almost wistfully.

De Jong last competed in 1956 when he won the California Epee Championship but has remained active in the sport, forming the Conejo Fencers Club 12 years ago so he would "have a place to fence."

The club began with a membership of two and De Jong now teaches a group of 15. Phillip Hareff, 37, of Moorpark typifies the membership; he grew up wishing he could fence like Errol Flynn after watching the movies "Robin Hood" and "Captain Blood" on television.

Hareff's fencing mentor is De Jong, who was a contemporary of the man who taught Flynn fencing. Ralph Faulkner, who died last year at 95, taught the sport until the final three weeks of his life.

"Fencing really hasn't changed that much since Duris competed," Hareff said.

There have been enough changes in fencing, however, to cause De Jong stress. He laments the influx of electronic-monitoring devices that are commonly used in tournament competition.

When De Jong began fencing as a 19-year-old in Amsterdam, a fencer's honor demanded that he declare when an opponent had scored a "touch." A fencer scores during competition when the tip of the blade touches the opponent in designated areas on the body.

"They don't care about form these days," De Jong said. "The only thing that matters now is the touch. It's not important anymore how they get the touch.

"If you're a real fencer, you want to do everything just right. It's important to look and act like a fencer."

The target or scoring area varies in the sport's three divisions. With a foil--a thrusting weapon--a touch is scored on any part of the opponent's torso. The target area with a saber--a cutting and slashing weapon--includes the area above the waist. And any part of the body is a legal target in epee competition. An epee is a heavier weapon (about 27 ounces) with a triangular blade that was historically used for dueling.

To prevent injury, several pieces of protective equipment are worn, including a wire-mesh face mask, padded uniforms and thick gloves.

But the best protection from a thrusting blade is the ability to outwit an opponent.

"Fencing is a thinking sport, a combat sport," Hareff said. "Not only does it develop your body, but it also develops your mind."

There's also a refined quality to fencing that lures many novices, including De Jong, who was a teen-age boxer with a punch-worn nose to prove it when his father encouraged him to take up fencing.

"My father said that I should take up a sport that was more suitable to a gentleman," De Jong recalled.

Worldwide exposure in the 1984 Olympics helped fencing experience a resurgence in popularity, especially in Southern California and the San Fernando Valley. There are more than 300 competitive fencers in the greater Los Angeles area and hundreds more pursue recreational fencing. Nationwide, there are more than 100,000 fencers.

The U. S. Fencing Assn. oversees recreational and competitive fencing programs throughout the Valley. In addition to the Conejo Fencers Club, programs are available at Valley College, the New Club in the Valley in North Hollywood, Lanark Park in Canoga Park, The Learning Tree in Tarzana and through Pierce College Community Services.

The Westside Fencing Center in Culver City offers the most extensive training program in the Los Angeles area. Seven instructors at the center teach classes in theatrical fencing and conduct seminars in the history of fencing along with sports psychology and sports medicine.

Ted Katzoff, 45, of West Los Angeles, is the founder and director of the Westside Fencing Center and coaches fencing at Harvard High in North Hollywood and at UCLA.

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