"As a kid, I always had a fear of being stabbed,” said Carl Chiang. “Maybe in a past life, someone stabbed me.”
Chiang is holding a steel sword as tall as a 6-year-old. The neuroscientist spends his Saturday afternoons at Mid-South Fencer’s Club in Durham trying to avoid sword strikes to the head.
Medieval sword strikes.
“If a guy just runs up and thrusts and hits you in the head, the match can be over,” he explained. “The scoring reflects what the damage might be if you weren’t armored and if you were in a real fight.”
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Chiang, 52, wears an all-black, padded suit as he practices footwork and swordplay inside Mid-South’s training gym. The club, whose mainstay is Olympic fencing, began offering Medieval longsword instruction in 2015.
“There’s no lineage of [longsword] masters,” said Andreas Orphanides, head longsword instructor at Mid-South. “We’re making a lot of guesses.”
At first glance, a longsword student might appear to be aping moves from an action movie. The moves are in fact the products of other fencer’s painstaking translation of obscure, Middle-Age and Early Renaissance texts about martial combat. The Mid-South group is one of many around the globe resurrecting what has been coined Historical European Martial Arts, or HEMA.
“It’s a lost art,” said Almira Stirrup, a fencing coach who has added longsword study to her arsenal.
And "a niche thing,” Stirrup said, after sparring in a Star Wars Boba Fett T-shirt. “That’s what attracts the nerd. ... I mean, ‘geek.'”
Chiang , a "Lord of the Rings" and "Game of Thrones" fan, said the the fantasy element makes "being able to actually do it a real thrill.”
He also likes the level of fitness that longsword demands.
“It’s easier when you work out. … If there’s a goal in mind,” Chiang said. “Like prepping for a tournament or just being fit enough to fight. It focuses you more.”
Chiang decided to try his hand at a tournament in Raleigh after just one year of longsword training.
“In my very first tournament [the 2017 Raleigh Open], I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ You’re always worried about getting injured,” he said.
Out of 60 participants, Chiang made it as far as the second round.
“The fight lasts only two minutes,” Chiang said. “Figuring out an opponent’s weaknesses is hard to do in a short span of time.”
Donned in full protective gear, longsword competitors look ready for spaceflight. Opponents are defined more by their moves than by their appearance.
“I sparred with this guy who kept going from side to side, tapping his feet,” said Alexander Datta, 18, a classmate of Chiang’s. “He was trying to bait me. He ended up coaching me for about one and a half hours afterward.”
“Almost to an individual, young and old, everyone’s pretty respectful,“ Chiang said. “Nobody’s trying to hurt anybody.”
Chiang said it is sometimes easy to misjudge the threat of the blade.
“It’s kind of like in baseball,” Chiang said. “The hardest balls to field are the ones coming right at you. ... it’s the same thing with the sword: it’s easy to misjudge how close the tip is to you when it is pointed at your face.”
Chiang said he first learned this while sparring with Datta.
“I went to attack him without any regard as to what he’d been doing,” Chiang said. “He just raised his sword and …” Chiang raised two fingers like a sword point to his Adam’s apple.
“I just walked right into it,” Chiang said. “What it taught me was that you can’t ignore the threat. You have to get the threat out of the way before you continue with what you are doing.”
In a recent practice, Chiang, Datta and a high school student each took turns landing a combination of four blows to a rack of fencing dummies. Chiang and Datta executed the blows in one fluid motion. Chiang watched the high school student struggle to get beyond tapping the target.
“Strike it like you mean it,” he advised his younger colleague.
“There comes a point where, if everybody is equal with the blade work, it becomes a chess match,” Chiang said. “It becomes more of a mind game, and that’s really the fun of it. It’s not always the biggest person who wins.”