Fencing's all the rage in Hollywood hits like "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" and "Die Another Day," although it's less of an everyday hobby with today's teen crowd. But for Jewish high school students Harry Mahaffey and Teddy Levitt, fencing is where it's at.
Mahaffey is the top-ranked 14-year-old saber fencer in the world. Ranked 49th in the international junior division (19 and under), only 10 Americans rank above Mahaffey, the youngest among them. Mahaffey started fencing at 7, when it was offered at his elementary school. He now practices two to four hours a day, five days a week at the Los Angeles International Fencing Center (LAIFC).
Both Mahaffey and Levitt have Olympic goals, but for now Mahaffey focuses on the Junior Olympics, to be held Feb. 18-21 in Arlington, Texas, while Levitt looks to a Feb. 20 Junior World Cup Tournament in Dourdan, France.
"What I like about fencing is it combines different aspects of sports. It's physical, and requires lots of technique, but there's the mental aspect of knowing your opponent," said Mahaffey, a 10th-grader at Le Lycee Francais de Los Angeles.
Levitt picked up fencing one summer at camp in Maine. He's ranked 14th in the national junior division and 30th in the senior division (based on skill, not age). Like Mahaffey, he trains at LAIFC.
"There aren't that many young Jewish fencers, so it's cool that Harry and I both live in L.A. and train together. And at tournaments, we always cheer for each other," said Levitt, whose family belongs to Sinai Temple.
Levitt never thinks about which fencers are or are not Jewish, and is always surprised to learn how shocked other people are when they learn that he is.
"They say 'Oh, you're Jewish?' I never thought it was a big deal, but other people seem to take notice," Levitt said., who was recently selected to travel to Israel this summer and represent the United States in the 17th World Maccabiah Games.
As with all student athletes, Mahaffey and Levitt have to balance a heavy school load with after-school and weekend practice. For these teenagers, balance doesn't mean skimping on the academics. Mahaffey's classes are all taught in French, and Levitt, a senior at Harvard-Westlake, has been accepted to Stanford for fall 2005 on a fencing scholarship.
"Finding time for both school and fencing has been a big challenge," Levitt said.
Mahaffey faces an additional challenge; he's a type 1 diabetic. But rather than let diabetes interfere with his sport, he uses his sport to control his diabetes. He uses exercise to keep his numbers in check.
"I was diagnosed a year and a half ago.," said Mahaffey, a member of the Diabetes Exercise and Sports Association. "It hasn't been that hard, you just get used to it, and learn to deal with it."
According to Daniel Costin, LAIFC's head saber coach, Mahaffey is doing more than dealing.
"He's young, but he's extremely talented, motivated, and focused on what he's doing and what he wants," the coach said.
Costin views Levitt, who conducts the center's junior program, as a born leader.
"Teddy's a very funny guy. Everyone likes him, the other fencers, the coaches, even the refs. And all the younger students look up to him," said Costin, who also coached members of the 2004 Olympic squad.
The boys' advice to aspiring fencers?
"Stick with it, even when it's not the most fun or going your way. That's when it's the most beneficial," Mahaffey said.
"Recognize that success comes from hard work, not just luck," Levitt said. "Last week, I drew a tough match against a fencer from Ohio State, the NCAA fencing champs. When I won, it felt like such a great achievement. No one could believe I beat him. It was the most incredible feeling of accomplishment."
For more information on fencing, visit www.usfa.org.
Carin Davis, a freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.