A little over a year ago, Evandro Oliveira left the beaches of Rio de Janeiro for the high desert of Albuquerque to become the Maestro — or head coach — of Duke City Fencing.
Over the past two months, the different world he has found in the Land of Enchantment has taken an entirely new meaning because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Maestro has been improvising.
Before he moved to New Mexico, he had to attain a work visa. And now he must, well, work to maintain his residence. As a fencing instructor, his passion is for his students to improve, but he also knows the importance of interaction, and he values connection because it’s crucial to learn more about the sport.
“It has been a great frustration, but it’s a part of life,” said Oliveira, who now provides free lessons online via Zoom. “It’s an unusual situation, but we go to work and we finish each workout.
“I usually interact with the students. Now it’s a great challenge. We love our kids. We love the contact.”
Duke City Fencing, which is in its 15th year, closed its doors in March a few days before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a stay-at-home order that went into effect March 24. Toby Tolley, Duke City Fencing owner and a coach, encouraged members to take home their gear and also a weapon so that they could continue to practice.
“We’re a small group,” Tolley said. “We have maybe about 65 or 70 members, and of that maybe only 20 go to competitions. … It’s a small group but for the number of people that we have we do super well. We bring home medals. … We’re small, but we’re mighty.”
Tolley helped provide instruction and workout videos on Duke City Fencing’s YouTube channel and Facebook page before organizing Zoom meetings in March. She could do that from home. She had to. After visiting her mother in New York, she was in quarantine for 14 days.
During that time, she also set up a GoFundMe page with a goal to raise $20,000 for Duke City Fencing because she believed it would be closed for at least three months. At $12,660, she is more than halfway there thanks to past members and their families, and others.
Oliveira and Tolley encountered a few challenges at first with the online instruction.
Students sometimes struggled to understand Oliveira, who has a thick Brazilian accent. But they solved the problem by having an assistant coach type the instructions in the chat feature. An assistant coach also guarded the Zoom meeting by shutting down any Zoom-bombers trying to enter.
However, things became really complicated when trying to provide an alternative for sparring.
“It’s very hard to motivate yourself,” said Allison Treloar, a 57-year-old Corrales resident who is No. 6 in the nation in her age division. “A lot of fencing is the interaction between you and the other fencer. You can do drills and footwork drills to keep your basic skills honed. But what we’re missing right now is reading the cues from your opponent and seeing what you can make them do and seeing what they’re trying to make you do. It’s that mental chess game that is really hard to maintain during the closure.”
In fencing, Treloar has tapped into her competitive side. For her job, she works in the scientific labratory division of the Department of Health, which performs much of the testing for COVID-19 in Albuquerque. She is the director of quality, safety, security and emergency preparedness.
Trealor won a gold medal in women’s foil at the Arnold Fencing Classic, an event named after Arnold Schwarzenegger, that concluded March 8 in Columbus, Ohio. She longs for the competition and the interaction that fencing provides.
She enjoys the sport because she feels it’s safe, with or without the virus.
“Luckily a fencing weapon is a meter long,” she said. “Between you and your opponent you’re already about six feet apart. We have a built-in measuring stick. And if they come in any closer, you stab them.”
Jackson Richards, a 12-year-old Albuquerque Academy student, got into fencing after suffering a broken leg while playing soccer. Fencing provided a safe way to rehabilitate, said Richards, who became even more involved with the sport as he started winning.
Richards, who finished third in his age group at the Battle Born youth regional event in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 8, said he enjoys the online training and has gained more knowledge from studying past bouts. Some bouts last about 10 minutes, but the students study and break down the video for at least an hour.
“(Training for fencing is) very hard to do in a difficult time like now,” Richards said. “But our coaches have done a great job getting us motivated.”
Fencing competitions, just like myriad sporting events, have been canceled or postponed.
A few weeks before the USA Fencing Junior and Cadet World Championships (originally scheduled for April 3-11) were set to take place in Salt Lake City, Hugo Cacace, a 17-year-old from Paraguay, came to train with Oliveira.
The event has been postponed, and flights to Paraguay are not available at this time. Cacace remains at Oliveira’s home, practicing outside sometimes and battling Oliveira in front of the house.
Cacace also helps with the online training and goes to the Duke City Fencing building with Oliveira to help with demonstrations for the Zoom meetings.
Tolley is grateful for it all.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” she said.
“And it’s keeping us all sane.”