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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / DIANE PUCIN

Okawa Doesn't Ride Fence on His Enjoyment of Sport

October 25, 1998|DIANE PUCIN

Ryan Sepulveda wore a black bandanna that covered his head. Swashbuckler-style, sort of.

Dangling from his right hand was an epee. Or maybe it was a foil. OK, it could have been a saber. In any case Sepulveda, a junior at Cal State Fullerton, was holding some sort of sword and sliding across the gym floor, sneakers squeaking, electric scoring beeping and all in all behaving as some sort of modern Errol Flynn, a swordsman with flair whose aim is not to punish the tyrant but to do well in the NCAA tournament.

Yes, in this tiny, steamy second-floor gym at Fullerton practices the Titan fencing team, a collection of men and women with names like Hernandez and Reyes, Takeuchi and Ho, Anderson and Lock, who mostly had come to Fullerton to be nothing but students until they ran into Heizaburo Okawa, a bespectacled 58-year-old.

Okawa, a two-time fencing Olympian for Japan in the 1960s who was once coach to the stars at a fencing club in Beverly Hills (George Peppard, Natalie Wood, Zubin Mehta, Roman Polanski and Tony Curtis all were coached by Okawa), works just as seriously to teach novice collegians the physical and mental skills that make fencing an intriguing blend of sweat and headache, of incredible endurance and intricate strategy.

"You use all of your senses in fencing," Okawa says.

Or you watch "The Three Musketeers" movie on television, and you notice how cool the sword fights are. You fake fight with your dad, making the clanging noises in your head. Then one day you go to college and notice that fencing is a course that can be taken for credit and then, even better, you find out fencing is a sport that is sanctioned by the NCAA.

That's how it went for Sepulveda, who played baseball at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana.

Okawa will do his recruiting anywhere. He has been known to stop into drama classes and whisper into the ears of students about how dramatic fencing can be. Mostly, though, Okawa finds his pupils in his P.E. class.

The sport drew Okawa close when he was a college student in Tokyo. The physical beauty of the sport, the elegant thrust and parry and the quivering leg muscles after a 10-hour day of competition were appealing.

But even more, Okawa was fascinated by the way a fencer needed to use his mind.

"You must think and you must concentrate fully," he says. "Your whole being must be part of the weapon and of the attack."

If all most people know of the NCAA is that there is a great basketball tournament and that there should be a football tournament, the NCAA also provides other opportunities. Fencing. Rowing. Sports in which there will probably not be a scholarship but there will be camaraderie, exertion, teamwork and a sense of accomplishment.

Okawa had come to the United States after the 1968 Olympics because his coach had opened the fencing club in Beverly Hills. Less than a year later, his coach died. Okawa, only 28, had planned to continue training for the 1972 Olympics but when no one came forward to run the club, Okawa retired from competition and took it over.

After a few years, he went to UCLA to coach fencing and in 1980 he went to Fullerton, where he could teach in the physical education department and coach.

About 60 colleges compete in fencing. Fullerton finished 25th in the 1998 NCAA tournament in March, a tournament dominated by Eastern colleges. Penn State won and Notre Dame was second. Only Stanford, third; UC San Diego, 17th; Air Force, 18th, and Fullerton were west-of-the-Mississippi teams that made the top 25.

And yes, this fencing thing can seem goofy, can seem nothing more than a bunch of kids play-acting old swashbucklers.

"But it's not like that at all," Sepulveda says. "First all, that cool sound the swords make in the movies, that's bad. You're not supposed to be clanging swords. You're supposed to be hitting the opponent, not his sword.

"And then there are the backaches and muscle pulls and the bruises up and down my arm."

Bruises on the arm? From a sword which doesn't have a sharp tip?

"Feel this tip," Sepulveda says. It is blunt but it is metal. "I can poke a hole in that wall with the force of my arm. You get that on your arm and it bruises."

Most of all, Sepulveda, in his two years of learning from Okawa, has come to appreciate something else.

"There is power and stamina and footwork and all that but the coolest thing is the connection you have with your opponent," Sepulveda says. "The mind focus that you have and your opponent has, when you are feeling his mind and he is feeling yours. That's the best."

Sepulveda still watches lots of movies. He has particularly enjoyed "Zorro."

"The fencing stunts were great," Sepulveda says. "But there was too much click-clacking with the swords."

And then it was back to work. In about two minutes sweat was pouring from Sepulveda's face but he didn't notice. Sepulveda saw nothing but the fencer across from him. Felt nothing but his weapon. The bruises? They'd hurt later.

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