En garde! 12-year-old fencer qualifies for nationals

Caidan Cooper (left) fences with friend Gabe Pinna during an exhibition bout at George Washington Academy, St. George, Utah, Feb. 2, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Kimberly Cooper, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — For the second year in a row, a young athlete from St. George will be competing at the USA Fencing National Championships.

Caidan Cooper, 12, at Utah Fencing Academy studio, St. George, Utah, June 12, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

Caidan Cooper, a 12-year-old member of Utah Fencing Academy in St. George, said although he didn’t medal at last year’s summer nationals in Salt Lake City, he hopes to do better at this year’s tournament, which is scheduled to take place in St. Louis, Missouri. The multi-day event runs from June 28-July 7 and is expected to attract more than 5,000 fencers of all ages from across the country.

Cooper is a relative newcomer to the sport, having been introduced to fencing by fellow club members Gabriel Pinna, 12, and Xavier Pinna, 14.

“Our older brother Raphael was into sword fighting from watching ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’,” Xavier Pinna said during the club’s practice Tuesday. “He found out about the fencing club in town and pretty soon all three of us were doing it.”

A few years later, the Pinna brothers invited their friend Cooper to come to one of their practices.

“I came just to try it out and I liked it a lot,” Cooper said. “I hadn’t done anything that involved physical activity before, and then I came back in fifth grade and I started taking it a lot more seriously. I started going to regular practices.

“I ended up just loving the sport and I’ve grown so much mentally and physically.”

Fencers get ready for practice at Utah Fencing Academy studio, St. George, Utah, June 12, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

Parker Miner, head coach and operator of Utah Fencing Academy, said even though Cooper first started fencing competitively a little more than two years ago, he has quickly risen in the ranks to become a top competitor.

Miner cited Cooper’s mental prowess as being one of his best assets.

“He does have the natural ability to think through problems. He doesn’t have any physical advantage. He’s the same size, same athleticism … but his ability to think through problems and react to new situations on the fly is a really good natural talent that he has.”

Miner said Cooper also picks up new skills and processes information quickly.

“Another thing is that when I do coach him on something, he understands it and does it. He can get his body to do it the first or second time we try it, rather than having to practice it over and over and over again. So that’s definitely an advantage that he has going into the nationals.”

Miner, 31, who started fencing when he was 13 years old, has numerous medals of his own hanging on the walls of the studio. He started the Utah Fencing Academy club and team in 2009, in hopes of introducing the sport to others and promoting it as a coach and trainer.

There are three main disciplines in fencing: epee, foil and saber, each with its own rules and style.

Caidan Cooper (left), along with friends Gabe and Xavier Pinna, addresses fellow students during an exhibition bout at George Washington Academy, St. George, Utah, Feb. 2, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Kimberly Cooper, St. George News

Cooper said he and the other fencers in the club focus on foil, which he says is “kind of in the middle” between the other two fencing styles.

“If you know foil you can branch off to the others, but if you learn something else first, it’s kind of hard to make the transition to foil,” Cooper said as he further explained the differences between foil and the more aggressive style of saber fencing.

“Saber involves slashing rather than hitting and you can hit any part on the upper body from the waist up. It’s kind of brutal, honestly. Foil requires a lot more tip control.”

At the upcoming nationals, Cooper will be competing in two categories: Youth 12 Men’s Foil and Youth 14 Men’s Foil. He qualified by placing first in the Y14 category Utah-Southern Idaho divisional qualifier in Orem in March. He said he competed the older category for the added challenge; winning it also automatically qualified him in the Y12 category.

His mother, Kimberly Cooper, said there are approximately 330 fencers scheduled to compete in Y14 Men’s Foil tournament at this year’s national championships and nearly 250 will be competing in the Y12 tournament, making them two of the most popular age-group categories. Kimberly Cooper and her husband Jerry Cooper said they will be accompanying their son on the trip to Missouri, as will coach Miner.

Caidan Cooper (left) fences against Gabe Pinna in a practice bout at Utah Fencing Academy studio, St. George, Utah, June 12, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

To prepare for nationals, Caidan Cooper said he’s been working on improving his physical fitness and stamina.

“I have to work on my endurance a lot and work on cardio … because when someone is drained out they can’t perform. Any sport. That’s why it’s so important. So I’ve been doing physical conditioning.”

Miner said fencers at nationals are often scheduled to compete in as many as seven or eight matches in a day during the early rounds of pool play.

“He could have a 12-hour day ahead of him, so he has to know what he can do, and he has to know how to fence when he is tired.”

In addition, Miner said he is also working with Cooper on small movement skills “to be able to perfect those without thinking about losing.”

“They work on one action over and over again until they get it right.”

At Tuesday night’s practice held in a warehouse facility at 415 S. Dixie Drive on the west side of St. George, several young fencers were engaged in practice bouts with one another. Between matches, students help referee their peers’ bouts, with electronic scoring systems keeping track of each recorded hit.

Assistant coach Ron Rife also suited up and practiced with the kids as a handful of parents stayed and watched the session.

Coach Parker Miner talks with Jerry Cooper at Utah Fencing Academy studio during practice, St. George, Utah, June 12, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

“Fencing is a great sport for those who may not be well-suited for sports like football, basketball or baseball,” Kimberly Cooper said. “It instills core values such as self-discipline, hard work and sportsmanship. It also develops self-confidence, hand-eye coordination, mental keenness and a healthy appetite for competition.”

Miner said proper etiquette is another major aspect of fencing, with athletes expected to show politeness and respect toward their opponents, from the opening salute until the post-bout handshake.

Caidan Cooper and Gabe Pinna, who recently finished seventh grade at George Washington Academy, conducted an exhibition match for their fellow students during a schoolwide assembly Feb. 2. They had been asked to demonstrate “self discipline,” the school’s character education trait of the month. Both boys will attend Dixie Middle School this fall.

For those interested in seeing the sport demonstrated firsthand, Utah Fencing Academy will be putting on an exhibition duel inside the Washington Walmart, 625 W. Telegraph St. on Saturday, June 16, starting at 2 p.m.  

Utah Fencing Academy, which operates as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization, is also planning to host a two weeklong fencing camps to introduce children age 7 and older to the sport. Each camp runs for five days, with daily sessions from 5-6:30 p.m. The dates of the two camps are July 10-14 and July 16-20. Cost is $95 for first child, $80 for each additional sibling. To register for a camp or to find out more information, contact Kimberly Cooper by calling or texting 435-862-8562.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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