PICATINNY ARSENAL, N.J. -- While Darth Vader may have his lightsaber and Zorro has his rapier, when it comes to real sword fighting, Picatinny engineer and fencing coach Tom Gauntner has the classics beat.

This year at the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Fencing Association Championships (MACFA), Gauntner's fencing team at Lafayette College, the Leopards, finished seventh out of 13 teams in the event.

But the Leopards weren't the only ones celebrating. Gauntner's peers voted him MACFA Coach of the Year, a title he has earned twice in five years of coaching.

Lafayette College is a private liberal arts and engineering college in Easton, Pa. Although the school has fewer than 3,000 undergraduate students, it is Division I for all 23 of its sports, including fencing.

"I like to think it's because I'm a swell guy," Gauntner joked about receiving the award. "But Lafayette's team has progressed and gotten better every year. I'm sure that hasn't gone unnoticed."

Gauntner, who earned his bachelor's degree in electrical and computer engineering, lacked fencing experience when he first entered Lafayette College in 2000.


"OBEDIENT FRESHMAN" FINDS SPORTS PASSION


In fact, it was only after two co-eds persuaded him at a campus activities fair to join the fencing team that Gauntner decided to try out for the team.

"I didn't know anything about it," Gauntner remembers. "I was just being an obedient freshman and signed up."

By the time that Gauntner was a senior, he not only qualified for the NCAA Fencing Championships, but he also placed fifth at the MACFA Individual Championships and was named first-team, all-conference.

In addition, he was voted Lafayette's most outstanding fencer, and eventually won the title of most outstanding senior. When he graduated from Lafayette, his overall record was 111 wins and 42 losses.

After he completed his engineering degree, he landed a job at Picatinny, where he works at the Automated Test Systems Division, which is part of the Weapons Software Engineering Center.

In 2004, the head coach of the Leopards asked Gauntner if he would take over her coaching position when she planned to leave after the upcoming semester. Gauntner agreed to help, but only for the rest of the season, encouraging the administration to find another head coach once he finished.

After that season, Gauntner did not coach again until 2006.

He went to watch a fencing competition at Drew University and Lafayette's team asked Gauntner to coach them, recognizing him from previous years.

As a result of the team's success that day, Gauntner was offered an assistant coaching job at Lafayette, which he held until he became head coach in the fall semester of 2007. Since then, he's been coaching the Leopards every season.

"You meet all these great fencers, all these great kids. You don't want to leave them," Gauntner stated.

Still, coaching fencing has its challenges. In Gauntner's view, the biggest challenge is the lack of respect and attention the sport receives.

The sport places heavy emphasis on safety. The equipment includes masks, jackets and knickers, which are usually made of heavy denim or Kevlar.

Fencing also has three styles of fencing: foil, saber, and épée. These styles are differentiated based on where the opponent can strike, the way the sword looks, and whether one has to thrust or slash with the weapon to earn the point.

Each hit is considered to be one point and the amount of points necessary to win can change from five strikes to 15, depending on the level of the competition.

"I don't think anyone understands how much athleticism is involved," Gauntner said. "It's not just walking back and forth and banging sticks against each other. There's a whole lot of sprinting, a whole lot of maneuvering involved. It's a physical game of chess."

Gauntner has a "no-cut" policy for less experienced members of the team who may not show much promise initially. So rather than simply cut someone from the team, the coach finds way to keep team members challenged.

Gauntner notes that teaching fencing requires much drilling and repetition, as well as muscle memory and endurance.

Moreover, Gauntner said, there has to be a sense of dedication, drive, and confidence in his team members. They spend September to March fencing five days a week or running five-kilometer races to stay in shape.

Given the fact that fencing is an individual sport, Gauntner also tries to provide a sense of team spirit by having his members watch each other's matches and cheer on their teammates.

"The lessons I've learned through coaching I can integrate at my job," Gauntner said. "Interpersonal skills, leadership skills, learning to motivate people--I learned to do that as a coach, but I know that I can use that here at Picatinny and the other way around."

With the ever-growing success of his fencing team, along with a two-time title like the "MACFA Coach of the Year," Gauntner has made a mark in fencing.

As an individual, he continues to compete in weekend tournaments held at various New Jersey fencing schools. Typically, Gauntner fences in saber.

He recently qualified for the New Jersey Division National Qualifiers, placing high enough to qualify for the U.S. National Championships.

"I love it," Gauntner said about fencing, "and I'm incredibly competitive. Plus, I like to prove to my fencers that the old coach can still hack it once in awhile."