Fencer passes on skills to Anchorage students

Sword sport elevates Alaska man from klutz to world-class athlete

Posted: Friday, December 11, 2009

ANCHORAGE - As the young Wayne Johnson, it was hard to feel all that significant in the world.

Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News
Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News

For starters, he was the middle son in a six pack of kids in a not-so-well-off family with the second most common surname in America. And, he was the shy, awkward, bookish one built like a Gumby, which doesn't help when you have this amazing older brother who's so outgoing and athletically perfect in every way that if being cool were a sport, he would have lettered in that, too.

But things started turning around for Johnson by the time he was 13. His path took an unexpected detour one Saturday morning when he got dragged along on one of his mom's dreaded grocery shopping marathons. Sitting dejected on a pile of dog food sacks as she went through the check-out line with two bulging carts in the days before barcodes and scanners, a small sign tacked to the store bulletin board caught his eye.

Hand-drawn on a 3-by-5 index card was his future: two swords, tip to tip, the word "Fencing," a date, a time and a place. Johnson looked right, then left, then snatched it off the board and stuffed it into his pocket.

In the years since, fencing has elevated him from klutz to world-class athlete. It's given him his highest highs and lowest lows, at times simultaneously. He twice made the U.S. Olympic fencing team. He twice didn't get to go for reasons beyond his control. Then, after giving it his all, he gave it up. Three years later, he gave up giving up fencing. He just couldn't let it go, and he's been fencing ever since.

Now 60 and devoted to teaching others, Johnson is head coach at the Fencing Center of Alaska, the school he and his fencing wife, Jacquie, founded in 2003. After teaching through the Boys and Girls Club, the center got a home of its own a year ago last spring in the former Alaska Dance Theatre building on Gambell between Fireweed and Northern Lights.

What Jacquie calls his obsession, he calls his mission - passing along to the kids, teens and adults he teaches not only the physical and mental disciplines of the sport, but a whole new way of speaking.

"It's what we call conversation of the steel."

There's a good reason fencing gets described as a chess match at 100 miles per hour. What happens, happens so fast the untrained eye has a hard time keeping up. It helps, Johnson says, to think of it as impressionist painting.

"When you look at an impressionist painting up close, it's just a lot of colors and blotches," he says. "But when you step back and look at it from a distance, it takes form and shape. And that's what you have to do with fencing. You need someone to teach you how to look at it and how to watch it, and all of the sudden it comes into focus."

But intricacies of the art form are not what first drew him to the sport. It was the clanging of swords. As a boy growing up in Fremont, Calif., he'd read Sabatini, Dumas, the legends of Roland and Siegfried, and all those sword-fighting classics. He'd made a foil out of his dad's old fishing rods. He'd swung wooden swords around in his backyard with his little brother.

Fencing has since taken Johnson all over the world. Among other highlights, he represented the United States in the World University Games in 1973. And in 1976, he became a member of the U.S. Olympic fencing team.

Now comes his first of several tales of woe.

In a training match with John Moreau, just before the final Olympic trials at Princeton University, Johnson's foot caught on a metal strip that had come loose from the floor. He sustained a compression fracture and massive tissue damage to his dominant foot.

"What's the use of you going to the trials," his coach asked.

"I'm going," Johnson said.

"So I got on the plane, went to Princeton, and in my hotel room the night before I cut off the cast and taped my ankle - heavily taped it. All I had to do was clear the first round, and I would make the Olympic team. In those days, I was an attacking fencer, very aggressive. And I couldn't put any weight on that foot at all."

Not only did he clear the first round, he cleared the second, and more than made the team fencing on a bum foot. And that was doing nothing but defense.

But the reality was, the Montreal Olympics were three weeks away, and there was no way he was going to be 100 percent by then. The team doctor wouldn't sign off on him. So he got pulled and replaced with an alternate.

Johnson spent the next four years training even harder for his next shot at the Olympics, and easily made the team. That was 1980, the year President Jimmy Carter announced a U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics in protest of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

That's why he keeps the photo of himself with Jimmy Carter hanging in his office at the fencing center.

"I keep it there to remind me that when much is at stake, there are always things outside your control. It's something you have to plan and prepare yourself for."

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