By Ginette Davies
The Leus Family Foundation is backing a scheme to offer young people in Brixton access to the sport.
Brixton Recreation Centre might not be the first place you would look to find children fencing. The sport has a reputation in the UK, perhaps unfairly, as being elitist and more likely to be found in fee-paying schools.
Fencing’s “posh” image is not entirely unfounded as it can be an expensive pursuit, from coaching costs to equipment.
Yet many believe it is the ideal sport for building life skills such as strategic thinking and discipline in children and young people.
Christopher Tidmarsh QC and Dmitry Leus are determined to make the sport accessible for all and they began this mission in Brixton.
Christopher Tidmarsh QC is the committee chair of the Brixton Fencing Club, as well as a barrister with a wide-ranging Chancery practice focused on trusts and estates, tax and pension schemes.
Dmitry Leus is the Brixton Fencing Club’s honorary president and patron, as well as the CEO and founder of Imperium Investments and the Founder of the Leus Family Foundation, a charitable foundation that supports the development of children and young people, especially those facing the challenges of poverty, illness or special needs.
Together, the two men are the driving force behind a scheme to bring free fencing lessons to children from local state schools in the Brixton area, funded by the Leus Family Foundation.
As Tidmarsh explains, the initiative goes far beyond the free lessons: “We started by giving demonstrations in local state schools so that local children could see fencing for themselves, often for the very first time.
“To see the sport live can definitely capture the imagination and inspire a young person to want to learn the skills for themselves. Then we invited 7-11 year olds to attend our Junior sessions for free, so that they could learn together with their peers who already fence.”
The scheme is designed so that children can begin free fencing lessons at primary school age, but the aim is to keep them attending long after.
Leus said: “It’s crucial that children get exposed to training young, but it’s also essential that they keep training in those all-important teenage years.
“Once they join us, if they demonstrate the commitment, we will keep supporting them in the secondary school years. We want them to be absorbed organically into the club and know that they will gain access to coaching and equipment without charge.”
“There is another strong motivation for us,” said Leus. “We see the power of fencing to divert a child away from getting into trouble on the street.
“When a child is training with our coaches and feeling good about the skills they are building, then they are not so vulnerable to gang membership or experimenting with drugs.
“Fencing is an ideal sport to captivate young minds and build their confidence in a positive way. Yes, you need some aggression to win.
“But you have to be in control when you are fencing and also respect your opponent. We are delighted to draw youngsters into the rigour and training of fencing, especially when we know they are perhaps disadvantaged and need such direction and passion in their lives.”
Leus is himself a former European fencing champion. Can he spot the same talent amongst the young fencers in Brixton? Could Brixton produce a world champion?
He said: “Why not! We absolutely see natural talent amongst the children. That is why Chris and I also talk so much about the teenage years.
“The UK compares reasonable well in terms of nurturing talent at a very young age. But where France and Switzerland excel is in how they develop that talent post 11 years old.
“The UK needs to do more of that, to invest in the young fencers as they get a little older, to support them on to championship level.
“That is where costs kick in, whether it’s reaching the level where you really need to buy your own equipment or have access to the very best coaches. That is an area where my Foundation wants to help further.”
Tidmarsh added: “And it’s not only about the future champions. Fencing offers so much to children. From fitness, agility and hand-eye coordination to strength and discipline.
The ability to be aggressive and yet control your temper. There are values to be learned in the saluting and shaking of hands – the ceremony that is in some ways similar to martial arts.
It also opens up the world a bit, allowing children to meet other people at training and competitions – from all walks of life, people they might not otherwise get to meet.
The truth is that the fencing community – far from being elitist – is open and friendly and there is a lot for children to gain socially too. We want to bring that to local children, even the ones who are not necessarily going to take it to the highest level.”
Leus said: “We have also been pleased to see girls taking up lessons. It’s very important to us that both boys and girls get a chance to gain both the physical and life skills that fencing offers. I can see a huge boost for a child stretching themselves in that controlled combat mode and we really want to see girls gaining from that too.”
Leus agrees that the fencing community is warm and welcoming, something he appreciated when he settled in to the UK with his wife and four children.
“Fencing is life-changing. One has to learn to be calm and controlled,” he said. Mentally it’s like playing chess. You always have to think about your next steps and your opponent’s next steps. These are skills for life, they transfer beyond sport. That is why we are so eager to bring the fencing to disadvantaged kids, so they can get a boost in their wider lives.”
Further information about free fencing lessons for children attending state schools in the Brixton area can be found at Imperium Academy – Brixton Fencing Club.
More information about the Leus Family Foundation and the causes it supports can be found on the website.