Fencing coming to Libertyville, Vernon Hills high schools
Crimson Blades Fencing Academy coach Gordon Gandy (left) is well-known in the fencing world. Here he teaches Justin Frank, 14, of Grayslake. | Michael Schmidt~Sun-Times Media
Updated: May 6, 2013 2:11AM
VERNON HILLS — Libertyville’s Rich Jackim was an avid high school athlete. The experience defined him, but he thought his daughter Skyler might never share it.
Jackim said his daughter is more intellectual than other kids her age and enjoys reading, drawing and fantasy. But in his family there is a rule: you must participate in a sport. Skyler, who is now 14, decided to try fencing.
She took up the hobby at Crimson Blades Fencing Academy in Libertyville and instantly felt she had found her niche, Jakim said.
“After the first two to three sessions, she said ‘Dad, I think I found my people.’”
Jakim said that many kids start at Crimson Blades at 8 or 9 years old and invariably have the same complaint as they get into their teens − there’s no high school team for them to join.
Calling himself a natural leader who gets things done, Jakim decided to tackle the problem and enlisted many students and parents to help.
“I said to them there’s no point hoping for things,” he said. “If you want something to happen, you have to make it happen.”
Almost a year later, they got their wish. At the Feb. 25 District 128 board meeting, the board formally approved the establishment of a fencing club at both the Libertyville and Vernon Hills high schools. It will officially start in the 2013-14 school year.
Though not unheard of, fencing isn’t offered at many schools. It is not a sport within the purview of the Illinois High School Association, or IHSA.
Jakim said fencing is popular with non-traditional athletes, like his daughter, who would otherwise miss out the seminal experience of being on a high school team. There could be other benefits, too.
“There are advantages in terms of college admissions,” Jakim said. “Some students have felt their grades were at the threshold, but they were able to speak passionately about the lessons they learned through fencing.”
The lessons are numerous, said Mundelein resident Tony Perello who has been tapped to coach the new team. He has previously taught classes at the College of Lake County and at the Round Lake recreational center.
Perello is a latecomer to fencing, having started in the sport when he was in his 30s. Besides the obvious physical advantages, he said, a fencer learns to be tactical and think quickly on his feet.
“People call fencing physical chess and I agree,” Perello said. “It’s very exciting.”
Debra Pelech’s daughter would likely say the same. Pelech is one of the parents who helped push the club forward at the high school after her daughter Lia took it up in fifth grade. Pelech said she liked the swordplay aspect of it, and it didn’t hurt that “The Princess Bride” is one of the family’s favorite movies.
Another of the students’ retro, pop-culture favorites figures prominently into the club: “ThunderCats.” The 1980s TV series is about a fictional group of cat-like humanoid characters who, of course, wield swords. Thus when it came time to name the team, the choice was obvious. The name also fits in well with Libertyville’s Wildcats and Vernon Hills’ Cougars mascots.
For Jackim though, the endeavor has been about more than just fun and games from the start. He put together a PowerPoint presentation when talking to district officials and was ready with facts and figures.
For instance, he found that 1.6 to 2 percent of students joined fencing at schools that offer it. He said this means that in District 128, they expect to have about 100 kids on day one.
The club will welcome everyone, he said, even if they have no prior fencing experience.
“I think fencing is one of those things where you can pick up the basics very quickly,” Jackim said. “With other sports it can take a lifetime to master the skills.”
However far the Libertyville and Vernon Hills fencers go, they appear to be off to a stellar start. Recently Jackim received a call from Olympic fencer and silver medallist Tim Morehouse who was aware of the efforts to bring a club to the school district. Jackim said he offered to come to Libertyville next year to put on a fencing demonstration and help with fundraising for the club.
“It was the highlight of my day,” Jackim said.
For more information on the Thundercats, visit www.thundercats128.org.