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Tom Knowles, a 1991 U of M graduate, teaches fencing at area high schools. He also owns two fencing academies in Shelby County.
Tom Knowles, a 1991 U of M graduate, teaches fencing at area high schools. He also owns two fencing academies in Shelby County.

As a student at the University of Memphis, Tom Knowles needed one credit to fulfill a physical education requirement. Skimming the course catalog, he registered for fencing. It must have been a direct hit. More than 20 years later, Knowles teaches that same fencing class at the U of M. He also coaches the fencing teams at Christian Brothers High School and St. George’s Independent School, and is forming one at the new Collegiate School of Memphis. He and his wife, Julie, own the Collierville Arts Academy and the Memphis Arts Academy in the Cooper-Young district.

Knowles (BM ’91) teaches fencing, padded weapons courses and unarmed martial arts courses. The schools also offer classes in dance, music, arts and yoga.

Some students may get their first taste of fencing through the movies, with thoughts of becoming Jedi knights, dashing Zorro-like swashbucklers or gladiator. But Knowles takes the sport seriously – there’s no leaping from tables or swinging from ropes in his classes.

For Knowles, the sport blends an Old World essence of romanticism with modern technology. “The basic challenge remains unchanged. It’s just that we aren’t doing it to hurt, like in the days of dueling,” Knowles says. “The intensity of real sword fighting is immediate and personal. It’s this continual test of one’s abilities against another’s through swords that I think fencers find most attractive.”

Fencers compete with one of three weapons — foil, epee or sabre. It’s not a sport that demands power or exceptional physical attributes in the way basketball or football do, Knowles says. “Fencing is a sport of finesse, timing, tactics and awareness. By learning and understanding your own strengths and weaknesses, and by eliminating the negatives while emphasizing the positives, a fencer can progress and become champion material.”

The sport offers a level playing field between men and women, Knowles says. He receives more than twice as many calls about fencing classes from women as men. And unlike many sports, fencing can be practiced by the young and old. “I have students as young as 7 taking their first steps in fencing, but I’ve also seen fencers in their 80s at national events,” he says.

Fencing is safe when participants wear the required safety equipment (mask, padded jacket and gloves) and follow the rules, Knowles says. “Other sports can get dangerous very fast. Fencing is more dramatic simply because of the movies and the fact that people really did fight duels with swords.”

When he’s not teaching, Knowles may be one of fencing’s most vocal cheerleaders. He would like the U of M to field an intercollegiate fencing team to compete against such rivals as Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Knowles also wants to see more public and private high schools in the Mid-South embrace fencing, even drawing in homeschoolers. He is in the process of organizing a non-profit organization, the Youth Fencing Initiative, to raise funds to hire coaches and buy basic equipment. “I especially want to see students who live in the inner city or rural areas have the chance to try out the sport,” he says. Part of his mission in opening the Cooper-Young location is to make the sport more accessible to kids who can’t get to Collierville to learn fencing.

Knowles also competes in fencing. This spring he took first place in men’s epee and men’s foil at the Tennessee Division of the United States Fencing Association, qualifying him for the National Fencing Championships in Reno, Nev. He and one of his top fencing students, Peter Wetzel (captain of the CBHS fencing team), went on to medal in several events. Knowles took fifth in the nation in the veteran’s 40-49 epee and eighth in the nation in an epee event with more than 125 combatants.

In addition to teaching, Knowles has coached actors on stage combat sequences. He choreographed the pivotal swordfight scene in the U of M Opera production of Don Giovanni. Knowles is a practicing musician and has played piano, French horn, trumpet and guitar. He studied classical guitar with professors John Stover and Lily Afshar while at the U of M. Knowles also has worked as a recording engineer, a video editor and broadcast news editor.

Mostly Knowles sees himself not only as a teacher of sword fighting, but a catalyst for releasing an individual’s heroic potential. “I believe that within every person exists a hero,” he says. “The ‘Heroic Self’ is an iconic version of ourselves that manifests itself during moments of great pressure. It can act with a heightened awareness of right and wrong, choosing the proper action. The ‘Hero’ only uses force if necessary, and always the proper amount. Fencing offers us the opportunity to explore the hero within all of us.”

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Last Updated: 1/23/12