Tom Knowles Fencing’s Fiercest Promoter
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om Knowles had to fulfill one physical education credit during his studies at the University of Memphis, and out of all the choices he saw in the course book, fencing was the one that stuck out. He signed up, never dreaming he would take so well to the sword-wielding sport made famous by characters like Zorro. Fast forward 21 years later, and not only is Knowles teaching the same U of M course where he first learned fencing, but he’s also busy instructing 50-60 students of all ages at the Collierville Arts Academy, an arts school he runs with his wife, Julie. Once people find out that Knowles teaches fencing, the next logical question they ask is if he ever participates in competitions. He does compete some and even qualified, along with a few of his students, for the U.S. Fencing National Championship in Atlanta this year, though he couldn’t attend. The teaching side just seems to draw him in more, so much so that he’s working toward getting a fencing program at the soon-to-open Kroc Center in Midtown and continues to coach the Christian Brothers High School fencing team, which he worked with the administration to implement five years ago; this fall, Knowles estimates the team will consist of 15-20 members and will have Peter Wetzel, the current state champion in his weapon, the epee, returning as team captain. He adds, “I’d really like to break in a fencing team at St. Mary’s or St. Agnes.” Proving his point that fencing isn’t solely a men’s sport, Knowles recognizes the late Grace Kelly, Madonna and Catherine Zeta Jones among the list of famous female fencers. Even girls between the ages of 11-13 are getting in on the action, as Knowles says calls about fencing lessons from this group outnumber those from men threeto-one. He has also come across an interesting discovery related to fencers on the other end of the age spectrum. “It’s surprising how many grandmothers I’ve met here who have done fencing, but you have to remember that fencing was a popular sport for women in high school during the 1940s and 1950s,” Knowles says. The appeal for most of his students is the mix of strategic thinking and the sense that one’s releasing his or her inner hero. Knowles compares the experience to a game of chess, though faster and with swords (The three kinds used are the epee, sabre and foil.). For those who like one-onone sports, fencing is a good choice, but Knowles reinforces that students shouldn’t try to hurt each other. “When someone comes at you with a sword, a survival instinct comes out, however fencing is not about drawing blood,” he explains. Adopting heroic values of courage, sportsmanship, integrity and humility do make the cut. En garde! Story by Leah Fitzpatrick Photo by Steve Roberts
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