High Desert Duel
When: April 19
Where: Bend’s High Desert Fencing Club on 9th and Wilson (911 SE Wilson)
Don’t let Tristan Krueger’s studious manner fool you.
The 17-year-old fencing standout is downright deadly with a sword.
Krueger, a junior at Summit High School and a member of Bend’s High Desert Fencing Club, won a national title last month at the 2014 Junior Olympic Fencing Championships in Portland. Having taken up fencing five years ago at the urging of an enthusiastic uncle, Krueger placed first in the cadet men’s epee national championship Feb. 16 at the Portland Convention Center, besting a field of more than 200 fencers. Competing in a tournament that puts the NCAA basketball championships to shame, Krueger went 5-1 in pool play before rolling through a 256-person single-elimination bracket — all in one day — eventually winning 15-14 in a thrilling championship bout.
“I’m not a super athlete, but I like that combination of thinking and athletics,” says Krueger, explaining the appeal of one of the world’s oldest sports. “That thinking on your feet and problem solving as you go. You have to set up your patterns specific for the person you’re fencing.
“People like to stay in one parry (a defensive move used to deflect oncoming attacks), often it’s a panic response,” Krueger adds. “You figure out their panic response and you can use that to your advantage. You play not just to your strengths but to your opponent’s weaknesses.”
Krueger, a well-spoken and lithe athlete whose quickness is reminiscent of standout tennis players or elite basketball defenders, spends most of his weeknights fencing with the High Desert Fencing Club in a former cement warehouse on Wilson Avenue. He also travels to Portland several times a month to work with the Northwest Fencing Center. One of just a handful of Oregon fencing clubs outside of the Portland metro area, HDFC opens its doors four nights a week to its approximately 20 members. Fencers can ask for coaching if they choose, but typically members spent most of the evening moving from bout to bout with other fencers. It is an all-ages club — members range from 8-year-old novices to athletic 60 year olds — and elite competitors like Krueger spend time fencing everyone in the club.
“It’s pretty unstructured, but that’s the same as fencing clubs around the world,” says HDFC president Randall Barna, 63, who notes that fencers can take individual lessons if they choose. “It really is a personal education plan.
“How much do I want to learn?” Barna asks rhetorically. “Do I want pointers from that fencer or not? Whenever I fence Tristan now, I say, ‘Tristan, I’d like pointers.’ ”
The High Desert Fencing Club, founded in 1993, has a strong track record for a club its size, having recently helped two fencers earn spots on NCAA Division I teams. Eliza Enyart, a 2007 graduate of Air Force, was a first-team all-America fencer for the Falcons, and Isabella Barna, Randall’s daughter, just finished her sophomore season at Duke with a 10th-place finish at the NCAA Mid-Atlantic/South Regional tournament.
“A lot of people think you just go out there and kill people,” says Xunan Smith, a 15-year-old Bend High sophomore who placed 26th in the women’s junior epee at last month’s Junior Olympic Fencing Championships. “But you have to be thinking about what tactics you want to do and moves and how to block your opponent’s blade.”
While there are various disciplines of fencing, the HDFC focuses primarily on epee, a style in which points can be scored on any part of the body. Bouts are typically 3 minutes in length or the first to score five touches. Elite bracketed tournaments like the national championship event Krueger and Smith competed in are 15-touch bouts that use three 3-minute periods.
During Krueger’s title run, he trailed 8-2 in the championship bout at one point before rattling off a frantic comeback to win 15-14.
“The final was a crazy bout,” he says. “At that point (down 8-2) it was almost hopeless. Everyone was thinking it was hopeless, including me.
“I just let go and stopped thinking so much and let muscle memory take over. … I scored five touches in the last 30 seconds. It was surprising for both of us.”
Krueger’s cadet championship was his final tournament in the 17-and-under division. He now moves full-time to the junior division, which includes competitors as old as 20.
“It’s really about getting that millisecond muscle memory down,” Krueger says about his next step forward in fencing. “It’s about building new skills, solving new games and making sure you’re always on top of your game.
“When I’m on top of my game that (a Junior Olympic national title) is what happened,” he continues. “But two days before that I was eliminated in the round of 128, maybe it was even the round of 256 in the junior epee nationals. It just totally depends on the day and getting that consistency. That’s true in all sports, but especially fencing.”
—Reporter: 541-383-0305, firstname.lastname@example.org.