Professor aims to bring fencing to the spotlight

Jim Liebich was 25 and in his last year at Sonoma State University when his youngest brother Bill invited him to a fencing class. Thinking it might be fun, Liebich decided to try it out. Twenty years later, he’s the biggest proponent of fencing in the Bay Area.

A fencing instructor since 2001, Liebich started his own fencing club in Santa Rosa in 2008 called En Garde Fencing, after the club he used to teach at closed down.

Many of his students and hired instructors are also from Sonoma State, such as John Sullins, fencing coach and professor of philosophy. Liebich also teaches beginner’s fencing at Sonoma State, and teaches numerous after-school and community classes around the Bay Area.

Liebich specializes in Olympic style fencing, which has a greater focus on scoring points. In his class Liebich familiarizes his students with all three weapons used in Olympic fencing – the foil, epee and saber – to make sure they have a well-rounded understanding of the sport.

Other coaches at En Garde teach other forms of fencing, such as historical fencing which is more akin to a martial art.

Liebich is a firm believer that sports and physical activities are good for children to learn and develop – which is a bit ironic since he had no interest in competitive sports as a child. 

“I wasn’t really a very active person most of my life,” he said. He was, however, very much into swords and epic fantasy – he plays Dungeons and Dragons to this day – and learning how to wield a real sword had an obvious appeal for him.

He didn’t take to fencing right away, it took a few extra classes and practice for him to really start enjoying it – but he started to appreciate the mix of physical exertion and strategy that comes with fencing dueling against another person. 

“Going to a gym to me is really boring and repetitive, but fencing is very engaging,” Liebich said. “It’s a strategy game, and that’s something that really appealed to me.”

Many of his students have similar stories. 

“I’ve always loved swords, and films and all that, so my mom introduced me to modern fencing when I was in seventh or eighth grade,” said Kai Eva, a high school student who has been learning under Liebich for at least four years.

Kids who have little interest in football or organized sports tend to take to fencing as an alternative. Liebich says he is constantly approached by parents who are appreciative of their children finally finding a physical activity they really enjoy.

What Liebich would like to do more then anything is to make fencing as ubiquitous in Santa Rosa as baseball or football – a fun activity anyone can do. 

“Fencing tends to have this aura of snobbiness,” Liebich said. “It’s perceived as this elite, expensive sport, and I don’t think it has to be.”

To that end, he has opened the doors to his school to anyone and everyone who wants to pick up a foil or eepe. According to Liebich, he teaches classes for 5-year-olds and 80-year-olds. Even those who are handicapped are more then welcome to attend a class or two.

“It doesn’t matter who you are,” Leibich said, “or what’s going on with your body; you can fence.”

Joey Bellamy is a fellow instructor at En Garde, and wrote some of the training programs. He considers the school to be one of the best he’s ever been at, especially for children. 

“I think his teaching method with the kids is really worth paying for and extremely beneficial. And he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever met, as well,” Bellamy said.

“He’s the only guy that provides equipment for the club members to use, and no one thought that would work, and he has made it work,” said David Charles, a fencing coach with over twenty years of experience.

Liebich would like Sonoma State students to know that anyone taking beginning fencing can come and fence for free at En Garde for the whole semester.

“We love doing what we’re doing,” Liebich said, “and we’d like to share that.”