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On Guard: Lexington fencing club produces champions

What child doesn’t love swinging a light saber from Star Wars or playing pirate with a sword?

Justin Fraser of Lexington describes how his then 5-year-old daughter Morgan got interested in the sport of fencing. “She and her brother were playing with little bubble wands in the backyard during COVID. And basically, she instead of blowing bubbles, they were playing swords, and she had this beautiful form. And so, when she came in, I said, Morgan, you look like a fencer. And she said, what's a fencer? And I said, someone who does sword fighting as a sport? And she said, yes. And so that's what started it.”

Now nine years old, Morgan Fraser is a medal winning fencer. She took the gold medal in her age group last August at the Pan American Youth Championship in Uruguay.

Morgan’s passion for the sport impressed her older brother Rhys so much that the 13-year-old put away the golf clubs and began learning how to fence. Both of Fraser’s children are members of the Bluegrass Fencers Club in Lexington where they practice four to five days a week.

The club and its coach have built a reputation for producing national and international champions like Lee Kiefer. The 29-year-old UK medical student became the first American in history to win a gold medal in individual foil fencing at the Olympic games in Tokyo 2020.

Kiefer is proud of the club that she joined as a child. “Yes, I have been a member of this club since it's opened in 2004, a long time ago, almost 20 years. And it's been such a joy to see all these little ones, like grow up and get some skills and just learn to love fencing like I do.”

Coach Amgad Khazbak started the Bluegrass Fencer’s Club in 2004. “I was the US Olympic coach in London Olympic Games, 2012 and 2016 and 2020.”

He says the club in Lexington is regarded as one of the best in the nation, if not worldwide.

In addition to Kiefer, the club boasts members who have won multiple national championships. Plenty of other members, including some adults, learn fencing as a fun hobby that is also great exercise. 

Justin Fraser says he’s seen a lot of benefits for his children.

“It's given them such a sense of discipline, a sense of achievement, or confidence and self-confidence. My daughter used to be a, if you'll pardon the phrase, a wallflower. And now she that she's fencing, she’s outgoing, she makes friends easily, she reaches out to people. And, you know, it's really given her a sense of purpose and a sense of something she can really aspire to.”

Fraser who is a surgeon and professor of neurology at U-K, says fencing is very safe for children. They wear several layers of protective clothing, a mask or helmet that covers them from the neck up, sturdy gloves, and special fencing shoes.

Most of the club fencers use a foil sword which bends easily and has a blunt tip. The tip is actually a “button” on a spring that is attached to wire inside the foil. When the end of that foil touches an electrified vest worn by each fencer, a buzzer goes off, and a point is scored. Fencers don’t stab or slash with their sword. It just takes a light touch of the sword tip to score points.

The most common injury in fencing is a sprained ankle.

Fraser says “the elements of the routine, and the rules and the etiquette, really maximize safety for the kids. And we, you know, Coach teaches those rules of etiquette. It's very important, it's really hammered into the kids from day one. And by obeying the etiquette by wearing their protective equipment, it really is extremely safe.”

At a recent practice, children as young as five and college age fencers filled the floor.

Kiefer has been known to practice with younger fencers who look up to the gold medal winner.

“I don't want to take too much credit. I wouldn't say I'm a coach, I would like to say maybe I'm more of a mentor, someone who has more recently been through the ropes myself and I can tell when you know, emotions are getting really high, or maybe people feel stuck, and I can offer maybe some comforting words. But yeah, it's just it's fun to be part of it.”

National champion from the University of Notre Dame, Stefani Deschner, is training to make the U-S Olympic team for the Paris games.

“I think this club is extremely accomplished, I think that it's probably one of the best in the US. And what I really love about it is the collaborative environment, a lot of clubs can be very competitive, because there's a lot of people that are trying to make the same teams, but everyone here wants other people to succeed. So, we'll talk about fencing strategy, after we finish a bout. So, it's a really friendly, collaborative environment. And I think that's what lends to the success of so many in our club.”

Nine-year old Morgan Fraser has a goal of one day competing in the Olympic Games. For now, she’s having fun using that foil to score points and win medals.

“My goal is probably right now, or later in life to get into the Olympics. And I also really want to just have fun and try hard.”
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Sam is a veteran broadcast journalist who is best known for his 34-year career as a News Anchor at WKYT-TV in Lexington. Sam retired from the CBS affiliate in 2021.