ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Duke City Fencing has been able to stay open for most of the pandemic and keeping kids active. They closed their doors before the state began mandating businesses to shut down in early spring and began offering virtual fencing classes.

Fencing is one of the safest ranking Olympic sports out there. Due to the nature of fencing, it’s also generally COVID-friendly because of the distance between the opponents and smaller groups of gathering compared to other sports.

Owner Toby Tolley said they wanted to offer online fencing classes as an alternative to coming into the gym. They began with the competitive class as a trial run. Students would come to the gym to pick up their gear and use pillows and mattresses to practice fencing at home. They soon expanded their virtual classes to young children and beginners. Tolley would sometimes go meet students completely new to fencing in a park to give them a chance to practice with a partner.

Later in the year when restrictions for businesses became clearer, Tolley was able to open the gym for very small groups of fencers at a time. She also kept virtual class options for those who wanted to remain home. Students have their temperatures checked at the door, they must sanitize their hands upon entering the building and must wear a mask at all times inside the gym.

Tolley said the main reason they’ve been able to stay open throughout the pandemic is because of their tight-knit community. “We have requirements for being here and people have been really good about that. If they traveled recently, they’ll let me know they’re going to do a Zoom class for a while. We have that family feeling so people aren’t afraid to share what’s going on,” Tolley said.

One student, tenth-grader Eri McClain-Yu has experienced both virtual and in-person classes, depending on how her parents feel about the COVID-19 case numbers in the state at the time. “It’s nice to have something regular, even if it is online. Coming to practice at four o’clock, leaving at five on a daily basis, that’s brought some kind of regularity to my day,” McClain-Yu said.

Tolley said in March at the beginning of the pandemic, she started a Go Fund Me account as a way to help keep their business operating through the closures. In total, they raised $17,000, a lot of which was from previous fencers who trained at Duke City. She also said she had many members continue paying their full tuition rate even though they couldn’t hold classes for a few weeks.

Seventh-grader Anna Alice Patelli has been fencing for four years but began fencing at Duke City Fencing in August of 2020. She commutes from Santa Fe and said focusing on sharpening her skills through this sport has allowed her to forget some of the stresses she deals with throughout the day. “It’s a nice way to just let everything out. It just lets me discharge from everything, and it’s also really nice because you can’t really think of other things, you just have to be in the moment,” Patelli said.

Competitive fencer and eighth-grade student Jack Richards has been fencing with Duke City since he was about 6-years-old. He had big plans to go to a number of competitions last year, but things drastically changed when the COVID-19 shutdowns began. “It’s different, but it’s nice to get back to doing something kind of normal. I know you have to stay safe but I think it’s definitely good at least two times a week, coming in just so you don’t lose anything,” Richards said.

Jack’s father Lance Richards said keeping with fencing throughout the pandemic has been extremely important, especially for their family. “He’s an only child, my wife and I are both essential workers so he’s basically at home Monday through Friday just doing online schooling. He needs both a social stimulation and physical activity that fencing provides. It’s been his refuge more than anything else. It’s always something to look forward to and you need that in life,” Lance said.

Tolley said she and her staff feel lucky to have been able to stay open and have such strong support from their community. “We’re doing what we can, taking every single precaution. It’s a beautiful sport, it helps people develop confidence. We really get a chance to see people blossom during their time here,” Tolley said.