2012-02-09 / News

13-year-old islander qualifies for national fencing championship

Joe Cohen, who is in seventh grade at the Montessori School, recently won gold

Joe Cohen shows the form for the saber thrust in fencing. He won a gold medal at a USA Fencing event in Worcester last month and has qualified for the national tournament. 
PHOTO BY MARGO SULLIVAN Joe Cohen shows the form for the saber thrust in fencing. He won a gold medal at a USA Fencing event in Worcester last month and has qualified for the national tournament. PHOTO BY MARGO SULLIVAN Jamestown’s Josef Cohen, 13, has qualified for the USA Fencing National Championships, starting June 29 in Anaheim, Calif.

Josef, who goes by Joe for short, recently captured a gold medal for winning the men’s saber E and under tournament the weekend of Jan. 21 at the Worcester (Mass.) Fencing Club, according to Muriel Cawthorn, spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Fencing Academy & Club in Warren.

“National ratings are awarded by the United States Fencing Association and range from A at the highest to E,” she said. “Josef also earned a new E rating with his high-placed finish.”

The new rating means he’ll be seeded at association tournaments above players who don’t have a ranking. Meanwhile, he’s already been traveling around the country competing on the circuit. Last weekend, he went to Washington, D.C., and qualified for the nationals thanks to his work at the Super Youth Circuit’s Capitol Clash, his mother, Gretchen Conn, said.

Joe said he didn’t fare as well as he had hoped in the tournament. After winning four pool bouts in the cadets division for fencers 16 and under, he lost two bouts to higher ranked competitors. He still easily qualified for the next round but then lost in the first directelimination bout.

“I was totally too confident going in,” he said. “It was disappointing, but I know what I have to work on.”

Joe, the son of Robert Cohen, has been nationally ranked in his age group since he was 10. At one point last year he collected enough points to rank fifth 12-year-olds in the country.

Last October, he went to New York City and won the Liberty Cup in the 14 and under competition. He’s competed in bouts in New Hampshire, Oregon, Texas, Nevada and Virginia.

But he didn’t always win bouts. “There were times I wanted to quit when I was younger,” he said. Joe hated losing. “It’s really discouraging, but you’ve just got to work through that and even though you’re losing, try to stick with it.”

Joe discovered fencing through another islander, his friend Max Liebhauser. They went to the R.I. Fencing Academy’s camp one summer, and Joe instantly fell in love with the sport. Of course, they watched the Zorro movie at the end of the camp.

Joe fences saber, not foil or epee, he explained, and the tactics are different. In saber, the fencers can cut and hit with the side of the blade, although they’re not supposed to slash at the opponent.

“They’re only supposed to make small cuts, but sometimes they hurt,” he said.

Joe demonstrated the thrust and showed how he would handle an opponent who breaks the rules and lashes out.

The bouts do have referees, and players can get tossed out of the tournament if they hack at their opponent. But some players lose their temper when they’re losing the bout.

“You just have to keep your cool,” Joe said, and showed how he would parry and defend himself. “Then you give yourself time to step back and away.”

Joe said the sore losers are not the biggest problem at a tournament, though.

“The biggest problem is nerves,” he said. When he first started fencing competitively, he would go into a bout so tense he was shaking. But he said that he’s overcome the nerves.

“My club has been really focusing on the mental game,” he said. “I’ve made a ton of progress.”

Joe practices four times a week with Jeff Mooney, coach at R.I. Fencing.

“The practice is like three to four hours each time, and then I’ve got other things like homework,” Joe said. “And then I work out on Mondays.” He credits Balance Sport & Fitness in town for improving his stamina. He’s been working on squats and lifting weights to develop leg strength and “explosive power.”

The schedule keeps him busy and does take away time he might otherwise spend hanging out with his friends – but that’s the only drawback.

Joe plans to continue fencing and hopes those victories on his resume will help get him into college. He’d like to play on a college team and someday compete internationally.

As for the Olympics, he’s “working toward an A rating, which is really far away.”

“That’s a long way off,” Joe said. “But I don’t intend to give up on my sport anytime soon.”

“This sport has been the most amazing thing in my life,” he added. “I would never give this up for anything. I love it too much. If there’s anybody out there that wants to try it, I’d recommend it.”

Joe is in seventh grade at the Qwest Montessori School. He attended preschool in town with “Miss Peggy,” he said, and stayed at the Melrose Avenue School through fourth grade.

He likes the teaching style at the Montessori School. “It really brought my education to the next level.” He enjoys math and history and is working hard on a research paper about Alexander Hamilton.

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