Growing up as a self-described ‘nerdy kid’, Christopher Valli found himself immersed in science fiction and fantasy.
“Watching Jedi and Sith fight with lightsabers, or Inigo Montoya squaring off with Westley in the Princess Bride was how I spent a lot of free time,” he says.
Valli took lessons in Chinese martial arts and learned to use a spear and sword. Modern sport fencing was initially of interest until he saw a presentation on Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). He never looked back.
“When I started to learn about HEMA, I learned it included everything from weapons to wrestling to armored fighting. I was hooked.”
After moving from Vernon to Winsted in 2015 for a communications job, Valli founded Laurel City Historical Fencing.
He encountered a few friends who expressed interest. The group, including beginner and advanced fencers, have been meeting every Friday night since the club’s inception. During Covid, classes were held online. Valli began training the more advanced students to become instructors, emphasizing the Medieval Knightly Art of Combat. With a focus on community outreach, he makes presentations and lectures at area schools and libraries.
Adam Eckert, 24, from Hartford, found Laurel City Fencing after watching someone on TikTok doing “cool sword moves.”
“The guy (on TikTok) said to google your local HEMA groups because they’re everywhere, and I found these folks. It’s a fantastic bunch of people who are dedicated, curious, creative and patient. Anyone could feel at home in this sport and not feel judged or excluded.”
Sarah Zordan, 39, of Colebrook, was drawn to fencing because she is convinced that "anyone looks cooler with a sword in their hand.”
“It was the inclusivity, sense of belonging, and community—especially in Laurel City and in most of the Connecticut schools. As an instructor, Chris has created this group of people who are diverse and different and that is celebrated in this school and in the HEMA community at large.”
While there are variations to the sport, Laurel City Historical Fencing’s curriculum adheres to the Liechtenauer tradition, dating back to the 14th century.
“Johannes Liechtenauer was the founding master of this method, using everything from longswords to daggers to polearms, and even armored fighting and fighting on horseback,” Valli explains.
“This system fell out of favor in the late 16th century as weapons and warfare developed, but these manuscripts give us little time capsules of how knights and men-at-arms would have trained in the medieval period."
Fencing may sound like a dangerous sport but interestingly enough, there are fewer injuries in fencing than in most other sports.
Fencers are required to wear protective gear including reinforced fencing masks, padded gloves, and a blunt sword for training. When it comes to sparring and competitions, a padded jacket, pants with rigid shin and elbow guards, a gorget (throat protector) and proper protection for the genital area are required.
“Everybody has to have articles of protection appropriate to what they’re doing that is approved by Chris. All sparring is directly supervised by a teacher or senior student. Plus, we’ve got a ‘HEMOM’ Sarah Zordan, keeping an eye out for everyone.” Says Eckert.
While there is extra gear for new students to demo, Valli encourages students to have their own equipment so they are able to train outside of class.
The most popular fencing weapon in the United States is the foil.
At Laurel City, the most popular weapon is the knightly longsword.
Valli describes a knightly longsword as “a two-handed sword with a light double-edged blade and fine point which can be used against an armored or unarmored opponent. Training swords, known as federschwerts, or feather-swords are flexible swords meant to mimic the longsword, and often used in training.”
With a growing interest in fencing, classes, clubs, events and tournaments are sprouting up all over. According to USA Fencing, there are currently 40,000 registered members.
Chris Valli has seen fencing’s popularity grow exponentially over the past few years.
He says that when he began, the community was growing but most fencers knew one another. Now, there are new classes and clubs all over, and multiple tournaments every month.
The most difficult aspect of fencing, Valli explains, is learning to commit.
“Things don’t always work out how you want, but to succeed, you have to keep pressing forward.”
Laurel City Fencing171 Rowley Street, Winsted