En garde!

Cracovia School of Foil Fencing puts the art in athleticism.

In an often-dark storefront nestled in a Struck Street strip mall on Madison’s west side, there’s a surprising amount of action going on. Opponents are facing off with swords — not out of spite, but for sport. And art creeps into the fights.

Decked out in traditional white uniforms and large overhead masks, the opponents hold swords that aren’t pirate blades in the swashbuckling sense, but fencing foils — long, almost pencil-thin, with electrically charged, spring-loaded tips. They make a surprising sound as they strike each other — more clack than clang, not at all like in the movies. Within moments, one opponent has struck the other’s woven metal vest, or lamé, triggering a tally on the electronic scoreboard. They swiftly step apart, then face off again.

Welcome to the Cracovia School of Foil Fencing, where students age 11 and older learn the historic art of fencing, a “combat sport” that long ago evolved from its brutal beginnings into a pastime for idle European elite and then into an Olympic event. It’s a sport that requires full body strength, as well as speed, dexterity and strategy, all of which help participants score points and win matches.

“When you hold the foil, it’s an extension of your mind, transforming your imagination as you engage with the opponent,” says Krystyna Kostecka, owner and head coach of Cracovia, one of two Madison-area fencing schools open to the public. “It can look like ballet in the ways they move. It’s pure energy, so I will call this ‘magic.’ ”

The magic works well for her students, many of whom compete against teams across the U.S. One student, Linus Rastegar, who trained at Cracovia for 12 years, became so proficient that in 2019 he was recruited by the Austrian National Fencing Team. Earlier this year he earned a bronze medal at the Austrian Junior Championship, which resulted in an invitation from the Chinese Fencing Federation to train at its Olympic Training Facility in Beijing prior to competing in the federation’s fencing Grand Prix in Shanghai. Rastegar’s successes are an extension of Kostecka herself, who trained under Polish Olympic fencing coach Leszek Stawicki and competed internationally for Poland from 1973-78.

“I started fencing when I was 13 and have been doing it for 50 years,” says Kostecka, who emigrated from her native Krakow, Poland, in 1990. In Poland, she practiced law, but since arriving in the U.S. she has primarily pursued her passion of teaching people young and old to master the European art form and combat sport.

“Fencing is a great sport for physical training,” says Kostecka. “It requires thinking ahead and planning a strategy. Fencing is a lot like chess, but played at 100 miles an hour.”

But fencing is not just for Olympic hopefuls. Opponents of all ages and capabilities strive for the sport’s beneficial values, which include discipline and a nod to tradition. Kostecka is long on tradition and is mindful of her school’s place in fencing circles nationwide. Purple is the color for Cracovia — Latin for Krakow — and all her students are required to wear purple knee socks when practicing and representing the school in matches.

Fencers practice four nights a week, constantly changing partners until each one has fenced with every other person on the gym floor at least once. Watching each combat couple move in unison, then in opposition, is not unlike watching professional dancers. The students often fence to music — Kostecka prefers electronic swing — which simply furthers the artistic imagery.

Classical fencing comes with its own set of manners, many of which Kostecka enforces among her students. In addition to foils, opponents can also fence with sabers and epees, weapons that come with different weights, techniques and strike zones stretching beyond the lamé. Kostecka prefers the foil because of its simple elegance, which also helps amplify the sport’s artistic nature.

“There is magic and art in fencing,” Kostecka says. “My mission from the start was to promote fencing in Wisconsin. I have goosebumps when I see how well my students develop both physically and mentally. This is what I always wanted to do.”

Michael Muckian is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine. Reach him at mmuckian@icloud.com.

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