Young Fencer Slashes Through the Competition

After years of practicing his moves and refining his specific technique, Jake Wischnia, 16, should have been eagerly anticipating his first international fencing match, just hours away. Instead, he was panicking.

The airline that had taken the Wyncote native all the way to Budapest, Hungary, had also lost his fencing equipment. He was left with nothing: no helmet, no padding, not even his sword.

"I was there," he said, "with only the clothes on my back."

With just hours to go before his first match in the Cadet Division of October's Angyafold Cup, his family was forced to buy him new gear. Unlike his competitors, Wischnia did not have a chance to break in the padding on his uniform or take many practice swings with his new epee. Early on in the competition, he admitted, the newness of it all seemed to be taking its toll.

"I did terrible in the first round," admitted Wischnia, who barely survived early elimination, and was seeded among the lowest of the 165 fencers.

Although not too comfortable with his equipment, Wischnia was okay with his surroundings. Unlike most sporting events, the Angyafold Cup was held in an old converted synagogue, which might have given the Akiba Hebrew Academy junior incentive to dig just a little bit deeper.

"I saw Jewish stars around the building, and it was maybe a good luck charm," said Wischnia, who in subsequent rounds began to beat some of the top-ranked competitors. "I pulled myself together and just started fencing great."

Wischnia finished the competition in 16th place, after dropping a match by a single point that would have placed him in the top 10. "Maybe just being used to my stuff would've pushed me to that extra point. But really, it's all in your mind – it doesn't matter what equipment you use."

Wischnia began to gain interest in the sport back when he was an 8-year-old who idolized sword-fighters in the movies.

"I always used to watch the swashbuckling movies like 'Zorro,' 'Captain Blood,' 'The Three Musketeers,' " said Wischnia.

After getting a toy sword as a gift, he wielded his new weapon all over the house.

"Me and my dad would always have sword fights, and duel with each other. I remember he always used to get welts because I always whacked him with the plastic sword."

Eventually, his father enrolled him in the Fencing Academy of Philadelphia, where Jake found other kids with a similar passion.

Although some may think that fencing's not the most physical activity, Wischnia – who finished third at a recent national competition – insisted that the sport is not all finesse.

"It's not only your body that's working; it's your brain," he noted. "It's really double the work."

Mark Masters, who coaches at the fencing academy, believes that Jake is one of the best fencers to study under his tutelage.

The coach also said Judaism and fencing were a perfect fit.

"The Judaic tradition is one of intellectual pursuit," Masters explained. "It's not who's the fastest or the strongest; it's who's the smartest. Being a good fencer does require a process of systematic thought and study, which is very strong, of course, in the Judaic tradition."

Looking to Wischnia's future, the coach had only glowing remarks. "The academy here and myself have a very long history of coaching consistent national finalists and international-level athletes. He's certainly among the top 10 that I've had over the years."

With such an endorsement, Wischnia is setting his sights on the 2012 Olympic games, but realizes he has a long way to go.

Said the athlete, rather modestly, of his chances: "It's hard to tell at this time."



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