The little town of Haapsalu in North Western Estonia is home to En Garde, a fencing club that, not to mix in too many sporting metaphors, punches well above its weight. Over its 69 year history, it has produced a string of world champions including most recently, Nikolai Novosjolov , Kaido Kaaberma , Heidi Rohi and Kristina Kuusk.
So what is their secret?
I went to find out.
I was invited to attend the daily training session where the club’s junior members were being put through their paces.
Whilst waiting to speak to head coach Peeter Neelis, another coach (his sister Helen) looked me up and down and decided it was
clearly time for me to learn a thing or two. She put an epee in my hand and took me through some basics.
Before being let loose on an opponent, I was shown how to hold the sword – It’s more of a pinch than a swashbuckling grip. Then I was shown how to stand, which felt like doing karate on a surfboard.
Then I was given my first opponent and it was one I was confident of beating…
After eluding the tennis ball’s defences I managed to stab the board behind. It was time for me to take a step up.
This guy was a little trickier and thankfully I was wearing the correct safety gear or he could have had my eye out.
Then it was time for me to face a real opponent, a 12-year-old girl.
We followed the etiquette of saluting each other before donning our helmets and away we went. Sooner than you could say ‘kebab’, she had skewered me and I was a point down. A few swishes later and I was 3-0 down.
Incredibly, I managed to score the next point, although it would be fairer to say that I was given it by my well-mannered opponent who generously lowered her guard and stood still like a scarecrow.
It was an exhausting but fantastic experience.
While I was getting my breath back and the kids were packing up, Peeter spend some time with me to talk about the club. It’s hard to believe he’s in his late sixties as we discuss a range of topics. He was as interested in my opinions on the UK and Europe as expanding on why his club is so successful.
The club had been started by Peeter and Helen’s father, Endel in 1950. Endel’s story is epic and was made into a feature film in 2015 by Klaus Härö .
Despite the difficulties of Soviet life one thing Peeter was clear about was that it was good for nurturing sports. Equipment had been crude and central planning from Moscow was inflexible, but with few other outlets, fencing was something everyone in town tried and some excelled at.
Makes you think doesn’t it? If you ever visit Haapsalu all the old people you encounter can fence!
Peeter talks with modesty about his own part but he and the other coaches (including his sister) have created an environment which produces champions. So what are the ingredients of their success?
1. Practise the art
Fencing, the most refined of the western martial arts, is often described as physical chess. The parallels are clear. Each opponent plans and executes well practised moves usually in response to their opponent’s moves. Like chess, these moves require practising until they become second nature, and at En Garde, sessions run every day. Indeed, while we were talking one of the youngsters was practising the same parry and thrust again and again with one of the instructors.
2. Put in the graft
The sport is physically demanding. During a training session, a top class fencer will burn 2-3,000 calories. Training in other sports is encouraged to build up all round fitness.
3. Success breeds success?
It’s easy to think that over the years success has bred success and continuing to do so, especially as it also brings in crucial funding. However, even from this brief meeting, it’s clear that it’s the drive of the individuals who have pushed this club beyond the bounds of what could be expected from a small town.
So what of the future? After all, there are more opportunities for young people. More things competing for their attention.
Practice had finished, but several of the kids were still there, laughing and chatting while doing cool down exercises and packing away. Its clear that fencing is at the centre, but it isn’t the only reason the kids are here. In an environment like this, it’s easy to see a bright future.