Chico teens headed to Junior Olympics

The boys have been practicing their fencing skills at My Fencing Center

Samuel Geddie (left) and Liam Hays are getting ready to suit up for the Junior Olympics in fencing this coming weekend.

Samuel Geddie (left) and Liam Hays are getting ready to suit up for the Junior Olympics in fencing this coming weekend.

PHOTO by kyle delmar

A group of kids stood inside the Pleasant Valley Recreation Center in full battle dress last week, drawing their weapons, ready to duel. The room soon echoed with the sound of clashing swords and bouncing feet, and the competitive intensity was palpable.

Of the group, two stood out—they jousted back and forth, matching each other point-for-point as a small, electronic sensor lit up each time one of their épées made contact with the other’s armor.

There was a reason these two—15-year-old Samuel Geddie and 13-year-old Liam Hays—were the center of attention. They were just a week away from leaving that small gym in Chico for a much bigger stage, the Junior Olympics in Dallas.

Samuel, a student at Pleasant Valley High School, and Liam, who attends Marsh Junior High, will participate in the junior (under 20 years old) and cadet (under 17) épée competitions during the Junior Olympics, which will be held on Feb. 19 and 21. They earned spots in the event—which will include more than 200 competitors from across the United States—after placing first and second in division qualifiers in December.

“I’m excited, but I’m also terrified at the same time,” said Samuel, who has been practicing the sport for three years. “There’s going to be a lot of people. It’s a big competition, I mean … it’s going to be a really, really big deal.”

Liam had similar thoughts.

“I didn’t think it would happen so quick,” said Hays, who has been fencing for only a year. “I’d like to finish in the upper half of the competition, just be really competitive out there.”

Samuel and Liam, both lefties, are members of My Fencing Center, a club that meets three times a week and is run through the Chico Area Recreation District. Their coach is Margaret Brunelle, who runs the club, along with assistant coach Anthony Vallerga.

The two have been teaching aspiring fencers as young as 8 years old what it takes to be a successful fencer since Brunelle started the club in 2005. She’d been a longtime lover of horses—she also runs the Make Believe Training Farm, a program based in Orland aimed at helping owners train and market their Arabian horses—and after watching the film Pirates of the Caribbean she began to fulfill her sudden craving for fencing.

“I’ve been involved in a lot of different sports since the time that I could walk, and I could not believe that I found a sport that eclipsed my love of horses,” Brunelle said.

She learned how to use each of the three swords—the popular épée, the lighter foil and the more difficult saber—over the next few years, going to her first nationals in Sacramento in July 2005. She competed in five events there and even did well with her least-comfortable sword, the saber, placing 26th out of 97 participants.

As My Fencing Center began to grow in members from just two to the current 35, Brunelle switched gears from competing to teaching, showing her students that they all have certain advantages over whomever they face, whether shorter, taller, longer, or any other physical traits they might have.

“When I can go up—and I’m 5’3”—and when I can set somebody up who’s 6’7” and I can win because of setting someone up and using my strengths against their weaknesses, I mean, it doesn’t get better than that,” Brunelle said.

Though Brunelle still competes on occasion, her decision to cut back and focus more on her students is already beginning to reap benefits.

With the Junior Olympics now a couple of days away, Liam and Samuel have expanded their practices from three times a week to six. As their parents agree, the sport has been rewarding for both teens.

“He found out about it, he got into it, and has been excelling ever since,” said Elizabeth Hays of her son Liam. “He can judge all sorts of things, the blocking in fencing, the distance, he was perfect for it.”

Morgan Geddie said similar things about his son.

“[Samuel is] in honors in school, too, so he’s very active,” he said. “I mean, he’s going to the Junior Olympics, and I can’t tell you what an opportunity that is at such a young age. I’m proud.”