Credit the Olympics, or maybe pirate Capt. Jack Sparrow. Whatever the reason, there is new interest in fencing in America, especially in the Bay Area, which is fast becoming a hot spot for young talent.
Nationwide, the U.S. Fencing Association has seen a 62 percent jump in members since 2010-11. The boost is reflected locally, where a growing number of clubs are ratcheting up the competition.
Fencing coach Stephen Murray says he sees the interest growing in younger students at his club, Las Positas Fencing Center in Livermore.
On a recent evening, he was working with a dozen members -- teens to retirees -- each with their weapons drawn.
Eyeing their footwork, he runs them through drills. They lunge and attack, parry and retreat, training their muscle memory in the element of surprise.
Warmed up, they don sparring gear. The fencers salute and the buzzer sounds. There is a shuffle of feet, a flash of hands, and the air fills with the clang of metal hitting metal.
In seconds, the victors have dispatched their partners with five "touches" of the sword.
It's a fast-moving sport for quick thinkers, says Murray, who calls it "chess with swords at 80 miles per hour."
The Las Positas Fencing Center, where swordplay is taught through Las Positas College's Community Education program, is one of dozens of Bay Area clubs.
Along with New York, Texas and Portland, Ore., the Bay Area is an incubator for young, gifted fencers and has nearly 30 clubs, including the Massialas Foundation at Halberstadt in San Francisco, a producer of many U.S. Olympians.
Sophie Rheinheimer, founder of the Las Positas center, says Bay Area youth fencing is "exploding."
"Fencing requires so much concentration and discipline; from a parents' viewpoint, it's a great way to get children to focus," she said.
Nicole Jomantas, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fencing Association, says it has 591 clubs nationwide. It estimates there are 100,000 fencers in the country.
"Everybody thinks of fencing as an East Coast sport, but the Bay Area has a significant number of fencers who are not just competing, but succeeding," she said.
She credits the rise in large part to the success of U.S. Olympic teams.
"Fencing had more TV time in 2012 than in any other previous Olympics. Kids were seeing it for the first time, and that trickles down to the local clubs," she says.
For the past 15 years, Bay Area fencing has gotten a boost from "Bay Cup" tournaments, run by a co-op of clubs, that allow fencers to rise through the ranks.
Bay Cup manager Sarah Thomson estimates there are 1,200 competing members in the Bay Area.
Other growth areas are at colleges like UC Santa Cruz, where fencing is offered for college credit, and at UC Berkeley and Stanford University, where fencing clubs are stronger than ever.
Bay Area success stories include Stanford sophomore Alexander Massialas, son of Olympic foil team coach and Halberstadt founder Greg Massialas. He and two-time Olympian Gerek Meinhardt, both of San Francisco, were on the 2012 U.S. men's foil team that took fourth in London. Doris Willette, of Lafayette, was a member of the women's Olympic team as the second-ranked female foilist in the country.
The foil is the most popular of three types of swords used in fencing. The blade can't be more than 90 centimeters long and has a blunted, or foiled, tip.
Massialas, 19, is among the world's top foil fencers younger than 20, and the top junior foilist in the U.S. He began at age 7 and competed in the Bay Cup before becoming the youngest national champion in men's foil. He calls his Olympic experience a "dream come true," and credits his coaches, Bay Cup battles, and the emergence of local youth clubs with forging him for battle.
"It created a competitive atmosphere," he says. "Each (club) wanted to be the best."
As U.S. fencing rises in prominence, he sees the sport continuing to grow locally.
"At the international level, we're already competing and doing well, and hopefully it will be dominated by the Bay Area someday," he said.
Bay Area clubs are scattered from the San Jose-Peninsula area (10) to San Francisco (six) and throughout the East Bay (seven) and beyond.
At Las Positas, Murray -- a Lawrence Livermore Laboratory physicist by day -- teaches all three weapons, calling his sessions "controlled chaos."
Matches are timed at three minutes, but they rarely go the limit. Scoring is determined electronically; the first to score 5 points wins. Winning is all about reflexes and strategy.
"You've got to pull out the right action at the right time without thinking about it," Murray said.
Jarad Ringener, 22, of San Ramon, began at age 11. At 16, he fenced in the Junior Olympic Fencing Championships, at one point ranking seventh in the nation. He has competed in all three weapons: the foil, the epee and the saber.
"Epee is truth, because it's the closest to rapier combat," he said. "Foil is art: very slow and meaningful. Saber is theater, because it is by far the most entertaining to watch."
Fencers have varying paths to the sport; saberist Michael Valente, of Danville, discovered it at a Renaissance fair.
For Ian Sterling, of Pleasanton, the club's youngest saberist, at 14, the draw is simple: "I get to hit people with metal swords. What more do you need?"
Murray said fencing may have an "elitist" reputation, but it appeals to all.
"It's a great thing to take off your bucket list," he said. "After a really rough day, it's nice to be able to come in here and stab somebody."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.