Liz Gorka, 15, of Salem Lakes finds the sport of fencing as an exhilarating adrenaline rush (Submitted/The Report).

Area teen trains in the art of fencing

By Jason Arndt

The Summer Olympics is often the only time fencing gains exposure in the country, but for one area student, the sport has become an everyday part of her life.

Liz Gorka, 15, of Salem Lakes has been involved in fencing since her first exposure at the Pleasant Prairie RecPlex about eight years ago, when she observed a fencing course.

Liz Gorka and two teammates review notes before a recent competition (Submitted/The Report).

Since then, the sport has been a thrilling experience for the Westosha Central High School freshman, who finished eighth in last year’s U.S. Fencing National Championships held in Dallas.

“It’s the adrenaline, it is so exhilarating,” Liz Gorka said. “It is like going down the big drop on a roller coaster, it is amazing, I don’t know how else to put it into words.”

Fencers have the choice of three weapons – foil, epee or sabre.

For Gorka, she competes as a foil fencer, which uses a light and flexible rectangular blade with a small, circular hand guard.

Competitors gain points through a series of touches.

Immediately fascinated
Liz Gorka, a former Brighton School student, remembered the day at the RecPlex, where she saw the sport first-hand.

Unlike other sports she tried, her first-hand exposure to fencing was instantaneous.

“I thought it was really cool, when I first saw it, it just fascinated me how they moved, how they controlled the situation,” she said. “I tried other sports before fencing and none of them really clicked, none of them really felt special.”

Her attraction to sport led her father, Mike Gorka, to enroll her at a fencing club in the Milwaukee area.

After about three years, Liz Gorka wanted to take her sport to a new level of competition, both nationally and internationally.

At RedStar Fencing Club in Chicago, where she travels to 3 to 4 times per week, she has developed a strong bond with her teammates.

“It makes me happy because of the people at the Club and all the people around me. Without them, I don’t know what I’d do,” said Liz Gorka, who plans to compete with them as a team in one of her five events at the U.S.A. Fencing National Championships in July.

“She is going to be fencing in a team with some other girls from her club, the Division 1 Women’s Foil team is what she will fence in,” Mike Gorka said.

Along with team competition, Liz Gorka plans to compete in four other events in the July National Championships, Cadet, Junior, Division 2 and Division 3.

While the Cadet event is reserved for people up to 16 years old, the junior event is open to competitors 20 years old and younger.

Liz Gorka duels with her coach Peter Habala at RedStar Fencing Club in Chicago (Submitted/The Report).

‘Physical chess’
Like all competitive sports, fencing brings physical benefits, but has an added wrinkle of planning moves against an opponent well in advance.

According to Mike Gorka, the “cerebral” sport has enriched her problem-solving skills, and requires trickery.

Liz Gorka agreed, saying competitors bring unknown skills, which require several adjustments throughout the match.

“You have to be able to plan three steps ahead, you can’t live in the moment with fencing,” Liz Gorka said. “You got to see what they are doing and plan around it, at the same time, not falling to their strategy.”

Throughout competition, Liz Gorka assesses her opponents movements, works with their strengths and tries to capitalize on weaknesses.

“You got to work with their nature, but also trick their nature,” she said. “A lot of people call it physical chess because it is about planning and trickery.”

While the sport offers a mental challenge, Liz Gorka said fencing brings a physical workout, notable at the knees and lower back.

“It is definitely a workout, you are in a squat for three minutes at a time, moving around,” she said.

Protection required
When a casual observer watches a sport with swords, one often believes competitors are left with scars and cuts from weapon strikes, but the danger lies when a sword breaks.

“They are steel swords, they break and that is when they become dangerous,” Mike Gorka said. “When a foil breaks, it will become a potential sharp point.”

However, to counter the danger, competitors wear protection approved by the sports national governing body.

“They have what is a called a puncture test, the fabric needs to withstand a certain amount of physical force,” Mike Gorka said.

While competitors commonly wear knee high socks and pants known as knickers below the waist, they wear more layers on the upper body, including a plastic protector.

“The girls have to wear these plastic chest protectors, boys don’t have to, but it is recommended,” she said. “Then we have an under protectors, which is like a short-sleeved shirt cut in half.”

To protect the face and dominant hand, competitors wear a mask and a glove.

Mike Gorka estimates costs for an entry level arsenal of protection is around $200.

Although the uniform offers a protective barrier, Liz Gorka reports a broken sword penetrating through the barrier can “hurt a lot.”

A pioneer
Liz Gorka, the only known woman competing at her level in Wisconsin, has lofty goals in the sport.

“I hope to get to college and the Olympics for fencing,” she said.

To reach her objective, Gorka spends up to 20 hours per week dedicated to sport, which includes practice, preparation and traveling to Chicago.

However, noting her career achievements, the dedication has paid off.

Among her list of accomplishments include two Junior Olympics competitions, one which qualified her as a 2018 Team U.S.A. member, and several appearances at the podium both regional and locally.

But Liz Gorka’s most memorable was last year’s top eight finish.

“Getting top eight in nationals has been the highlight of my career so far,” she said.


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