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For Some, Back To School Means Time To Start Fencing

By Paul D. Bowker | Sept. 04, 2014, 4:42 p.m. (ET)

Tim Morehouse speaks to a group of students during an open house at Pocatello Fencing Club on Sept. 3, 2014 in Pocatello, Idaho.

The journey toward an Olympic medal in fencing began in an unlikely way for Tim Morehouse.

He was a 13-year-old seventh grader hoping to avoid gym class. Morehouse noticed a sign at Riverdale Country School in Bronx, New York, that carried the message: Try fencing, get out of PE.

Morehouse, a two-time Olympian and a former schoolteacher in New York City, laughs about that now. He won a silver team medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and is now the driving force behind Fencing in the Schools, an initiative he hopes will eventually introduce the sport to 1 million kids in the United States.

“Fencing was a sport that really changed my life,” Morehouse said. “Thinking back, what if I had never found this sport? I was just fortunate that I went to a school that had fencing.”

Now Morehouse and a group of other Olympians, including 2012 Olympic teammates Susie Scanlan, Nzingha Prescod and Daryl Homer, are teaching fencing in the same physical-education setting that Morehouse disliked as a teen.

The numbers are impressive. In its first year, 2013, Fencing in the Schools delivered the sport to 10,000 kids nationally in nine states. The plan is to increase that number to 20,000 this year in 15 states.

“We’re bringing the Olympic Movement to all these schools around the country,” Morehouse said.

Morehouse and his training partners spent the first week of September in Idaho, where the participating schools in Pocatello, Blackfoot and Rigby nearly doubled from 2013 and the number of kids totaled 2,500. School principals are delighted that their schools are being targeted by Olympians. Excitement among the students becomes quickly obvious.

“The kids literally jump up and down,” Morehouse said. “They have a great time with it. The teachers are really excited to do something new.”

Other athlete ambassadors in the program include Gerek Meinhardt, who was ranked No. 1 in the world in men’s foil earlier this year; Jeff Spear, a 2012 Olympian; Dagmara Wozniak, a two-time Olympian; and Maria Cruz Garcia, a speedskater who competed at the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games.

Morehouse is hoping that the Fencing in the Schools program leads other sports into doing the same thing with kids across the country.

“What I want out of Fencing in the Schools is I want us to be a model both how to grow a sport and also impact children’s lives using sports,” Morehouse said.

Morehouse began brainstorming the idea in 2011. While taking part in a number of promotional settings leading up to the London 2012 Olympic Games, he heard a similar question in many communities: How can our school get a fencing program?

Since Morehouse began as a social studies and English teacher for Teach For America, he found that Fencing in the Schools would combine “my passion for education and my passion for the sport of fencing together.”

Tim Morehouse instructs Democracy Prep PE teachers at Teacher Training Day 2014 on Aug. 28, 2014 in Harlem, New York.

The teaching begins with the physical-education instructors. And it involves much more than bringing some fencing equipment into a room and doing a demonstration. A curriculum was developed by Morehouse, Fencing in the Schools’ chief executive officer; Spear, chief operating officer; Kalle Weekes, past president of USA Fencing; and Jeff Imrich, a Teach For America alumnus.

Once the PE teachers learn the sport, they use the curriculum to teach the kids. During in-school visits, Fencing in the Schools instructors demonstrate the sport and speak to the kids at school assemblies. Scanlan brings her bronze medal from the London 2012 Olympic Games to show the students.

“We’re real excited to be working with all these great teachers to teach them something new and then have them go out and work with the kids,” Morehouse said.

Fencing in the Schools is being taught in six- to 12-week units this year at five schools in Harlem, New York, and two schools in south Bronx. Dennis Wolfe, athletic director at Democracy Prep Public Schools, has seen the program become a difference maker in physical education classes.

"It's very gender neutral. Anyone in the class can be successful as long as they're following the core values and skills that we're teaching," Wolfe said. "It's amazing to see some of the girls in class who aren't really excited about some of the other sport-oriented things that we do. Once they pick up a foil and put on a vest, they're extremely excited about being in class. And for us, that's huge."

The curriculum is developed for students in the third through 12th grades. It is Morehouse’s hope that the program will help start high school varsity programs so that kids can be in competitive matches and start a pipeline that extends to college programs and the Olympic Games.

It can cost between $20,000 and $30,000 to start a varsity program in fencing, Morehouse said, which is why program officials are working with equipment sponsors to find a way to cut that cost in half.

“That’s a big project,” he said. “Everything else we’re working on, that’s as important as anything else because if we can lower the cost of the equipment, we just make the sport that much more reachable for kids and families to go to.”

Sponsorships have helped the organization in its early stages. A grant from P&G will bring several school programs to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Fencing equipment was specially designed for the classes so that fencing jackets light up and buzz when a point is made. Plastic swords are used. The technology has been so successful, Morehouse said, that the International Fencing Federation (FIE) has adopted much of the design for its own programs.

The path of Fencing in the Schools has fueled Morehouse so much that he may not try for another Olympic berth in 2016.

“Now when I think about the kind of impact I should make with my life, I think having this program really succeed is a priority for me,” said Morehouse, the first Olympian in Brandeis University history and a three-time NCAA All-American. “As much as making the Olympics, winning a medal, winning a gold, is important, too, I feel like this is as important to me and maybe more so.”

Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990 and was Olympic assistant bureau chief for Morris Communications at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. He also writes about Olympic sports for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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Tim Morehouse