Fencing in Malaysia has come a long way since Ronnie Theseira represented the country in foil, epee and sabre in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
Theseira’s long enduring interest in this duelling sport speaks well for fencing. At the ripe old age of 86, he still makes the weekend journey from Malacca to teach fencing at the Royal Lake Club.
1964 also witnessed the Malaysian Amateur Fencing Association being renamed the current Malaysian Fencing Federation (MFF) which administers the sport in Malaysia.
Fast forward more than 50 years later, the sport grows ever more popular through private clubs such as Swashbucklers, Touche, Blade Fencing, to name a few.
“When we started it was like an experiment but suddenly we found we have more fencers than we could handle,” said Nontapart Panchan, co-owner and head coach of Blade Fencing Club in Kuala Lumpur.
Non, as he is fondly known, is a Thai national, six-time SEA Games gold medallist in foil and his country’s first Olympian in fencing in Beijing in 2008.
He runs the club with partner Boaz Koh Wei since its inception in February 2013.
He observed that membership in Malaysian fencing clubs was double those in similar clubs in Singapore. He gave two reasons for the surge.
“In the past it used to be seen as an old, aristocratic, upper-class sport but since it revolutionised itself to become an everyday sport, its popularity surged worldwide especially in East Asia,” he said.
“Countries such as Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong (territory) have become powerhouses and the sport and business is booming. That interest has spread to Malaysia,” he added.
“Secondly, is the emergence of private education, with more and more international schools including fencing in their programmes. I think the combination of the two helps the sport to catch fire,” opined Non.
He believes fencing contributes to building character. “There’s no one behind, you are alone, how well you do is not so much on how well trained you are but how much you believe in yourself,” he says.
“It requires quick reactions, quick thinking on how you will outwit your opponent. A lot of it is mental combat. You can also call it physical chess.”
On beginners, Non believes a great deal of emphasis has to be placed on developing the buts and bolts – the footwork, the handwork, the sense of distance and the sense of timing before the student is allowed to spar.
Unlike judo, karate and most martial arts, there are no grading exercises in fencing although Non has his own way of assessing the standards of his charges.
“As there are many competitions these days, our club use competitions as a measuring point. So for example, if a fencer is placed in the top 32 in this competition, then finishes in the top-16 in another, there’s progress,” he said.
The growing pool of talented young fencers in Malaysia has not gone unnoticed by the much-crowned retired Thai fencer.
“I’ve noticed that usually there are about 26 fencers competing at the senior championship level but after visiting a Under-12 championship, I noted there were as many as 60 fencers. So the youth base is growing.”
Blade Fencing also has its own group of high performing young, fencers including Hans Yoong and Amirah Sofea Ahmad Puad, among many others.
Hans, 16, has won the Under-20 and Under-17 foil titles in the MFF President’s Cup and the gold medal in foil in the Jakarta Challenge International Open but his outstanding performance came in the 2014 Junior World Cup in Singapore. He won the silver medal after being defeated by Japanese Takahiro Shikine 15-9 in the 16th round.
Amirah, 13, was the top-ranked fencer in the national junior and cadet fencing championship last year, just ahead of her younger sister Umaira. She won the gold medal in the Under-12 category for foil in the Jakarta Challenge International Open last year.
“I am quite confident she will make the SEA Games squad for 2019 and hopefully can come away with a medal. I see that she and sister Umaira as having the potential to compete in the Asian Games beyond that,” he said.
Another national fencer, Tristan Cheng took part in the SEA Games for the first time in Singapore last year. “I managed to do well in some competitions and made it into the team (foil) where we lost in the quarter-finals to silver medallists the Philippines,” he recalled.
“It was exciting to compete against some good fencers. Hopefully, I can make the team next year and win the gold medal,” mused the 17-year-old Garden International student.
The other national fencers in Blade Fencing include Hans Yoong, Bryan Cheong and Lin Quan Lim.
For Nontapart, a lot has changed in fencing since he took it up in Thammasat University in Bangkok at the tender age of 10.
“My coach was old-school and made me train three or four times a week without sparring and weapons for five months. You cannot do that with children’s short attention span these days,” he quipped.
The 35-year-old, who retired after winning his sixth foil gold in the Singapore SEA Games last year, won his first gold in Kuala Lumpur in 2001. Perhaps next year when KL hosts the Games he could, possibly see one of his charges carry on his golden run albeit for Malaysia.