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FENCERS OPEN GATES WIDE FOR NATIONALS

Ron Hendricks has heard them at least a thousand times.

When people ask him what he does, and he answers "I'm a fencer," or "I fence," the two most common responses are:"Oh, chain link or picket?"

Or.

"Be careful. My brother's a cop."

So, you can imagine Hendricks' excitement as nearly 1,000 of his peers, the best fencers in America, have arrived in Salt Lake for the next week to participate in the United States Fencing Association's national championships.

It's going to be a lot harder for the masses to ignore the sport of fencing with 1,000 people in town carrying their swords.

"What we're hoping is that this event opens some eyes," says Hendricks. No pun intended.

Hendricks is co-chairman of the event that is being hosted in the Salt Palace by the Utah-Southern Idaho division of the USFA.

In an effort to make certain people will have no excuse not to attend all or part of the meet that runs through Sunday, June 17, the organizers decided to make the admission as painless as possible.

There will be no charge.

To get in to see the fencing will cost the same as getting into Pioneer Park.

"Our objective isn't to make money but to show off the sport," says Hendricks. "They used to have the nationals only in (fencing) hotbeds like New York or Chicago. Now the idea is to spread it around. We're just starting to learn how to market our sport."

As you might guess, Hendricks is a fencing zealot. A commercial photographer, he has been fencing for the past 15 years, ever since he walked past a fencing class at Utah State University.

"I was in the martial arts quite heavily at the time," he says, "and the thing I noticed about fencing is that, unlike the martial arts, you can hit your opponent.

"Unless you go into full-contact karate - and not a lot of people tend to do that - you're taught to

pull everything in the martial arts. In fencing there's all the offense and defense and you can still make a conclusive hit."

Hendricks fenced for the extramural team at Utah State, studied under a master in Denver (Mel North) for two years, and has hovered on the periphery of national-class ever since. After one of his best sectionals ever recently at Park City, he's qualified to compete in the Div. I men's foil portion of this week's national tournament.

"My goal is to be in the top half if possible," he says. But knowing full well he'll be facing the best foil experts in the country, he adds, "Whatever happens, I shouldn't last too long. I don't think anybody will be able to say I'll be fencing too much in a tournament I'm supposed to be running."

Twenty-four other Utahns will also be competing in the nationals, 17 in Div. II and seven in addition to Hendricks in Div. I. Homecourt advantage notwithstanding, if any Utah fencer makes it into a round of 16 it will be a major accomplishment.

Technically, it's not a homecourt advantage, it's a homepiste advantage. The piste is the fencing term for the 14 meter by 2 meter strip that fencers must stay inside during a bout.

If they go off the piste it is symbolic of falling off a cliff and the competitor is severely penalized.

The sport is easily traceable to its roots in the days when there were no guns and nuclear bombs and people still held wars. Back then, winners and losers of swordfights were easily identifiable.

Now, fencers wear protective clothing, blunt the tips of their swords (foils, sabres or epees), and rig themselves electronically so hits are accurately recorded.

It's a game of life and death, without the death.

"Think about it," says Hendricks. "If you didn't have the jacket and the mask, and if the edges of the swords were sharp, the result would be . . . "And the rules are made to make you fence like you're defending your life."

As Hendricks explains further, if your opponent is about to score on your body, you don't want to ignore that and go ahead and score on his body. What good is a double suicide? The best offense is a good defense.

In some of the fencing events, if the contest ends in a tie, both fencers are declared losers.

All in all an old but little understood sport in the '90s. But in the next nine days, Hendricks and 1,000 others are hoping it will be a lot better understood around here.