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Fencer Relies on Hearing to Best Opponents

With computers and other new technologies, the blind and visually-impaired can do almost any task a sighted person can. But in some cases, as Keith Anderson has shown, you don't need any high-tech gadgets, just determination... and a shift of perception.

Keith Anderson has always wanted to be a swashbuckler. "Must have been when I was like 4 or something," he recalls, "my mother introduced me to Zorro and The Three Musketeers, and Peter Pan was a favorite movie." His friends thought he was really odd, he says with a laugh, "because when they were playing cops and robbers, I was swinging sticks around and they couldn't figure it out."

But two obstacles stood in the way of his swashbuckling dreams. There were no fencing clubs near his home in the western part of South Dakota. And Keith Anderson has been legally blind since birth. He uses a white cane, wears extremely thick glasses and can't make out much more than the general shapes of objects around him. So, it seemed unlikely that Keith would ever have the opportunity to prove his metal with a fencing foil… until the Black Hills Fencing Club opened its doors.

He approached instructor Jeff McGough about taking lessons, and got a less than enthusiastic response. "I was quite hesitant at first," Mr. McGough admits. "I thought, 'How can you do this?' I mean, without sight, you don't know where the weapon is, you don't know where you're opponent is. But I've learned at the university that you shouldn't close yourself down to any(thing). They really push you to 'keep your mind open.' That's the mantra of liberal education, right?" So he invited Keith to visit the Club. "And I saw that he is not completely sight-impaired, he can tell objects, and roughly where they are. And so that was enough for him to know where his opponent was. I thought let's give this a shot."

Mr. McGough was impressed by Keith Anderson's enthusiasm as well as his natural ability for fencing. He adapted his instruction technique to use the fencing foil almost like a white cane, to help the visually-impaired student sense what's around him. He explains, that allows Keith to rely on his ears and other senses instead of just his eyes when facing an opponent. "So he worked a lot with working that foil like the cane and determining where their weapon is and pretty much the relationship between the weapon and the body, to know where they were and how to hit," he says. "You can get a lot of energy off the weapon. You can feel what their psyche is like and what attacks and what sort of strategy you should try. And so he listened to the feet and listened to the weapon and listened to the whooshing. You can't see any of that. But once he had an attachment to the weapon, he could then go ahead and make a successful hit. So he learned a lot of moves where he would search and look. And then once he'd connect, he'd go. He was very powerful when his game was on."

Powerful enough to spar with Rick Van Ness, who has fenced for more than 30 years. Mr. Van Ness says when they first faced off, he had no idea that Keith Anderson had a vision problem. "I saw a thick pair of glasses," he recalls, "but I thought nothing of that. And as I fenced him, just as any other fencer, I thought, now this is a really good beginner. All right, let's get it better."

The two sparred often, and Mr. Van Ness says Keith did get better. "His movements to detect me in the early stages were very wide, and I was basically just able to go through the middle of his defenses. We sparred together and through that time, he learned to tighten that up, which presents a much more difficult screen to get through. So, yes, I saw a marked improvement from January through this June."

So did his instructor Jeff McGough, who says that after 6 months, Keith was ready for entry-level competition. He went from "somebody who had never picked up a foil" to being able to hit an opponent that was attempting to defend himself and hit him. And, the instructor adds, "he would trade touches with some of our more experienced fencers."

Perhaps the only one who's not surprised at his success is Keith Anderson himself, who says that following one's dreams should never be limited by physical, emotional or psychological handicaps. "Maybe you can do some of the things you dream about and maybe there's just no way," he says. "But you have to find that out for yourself. Don't let anybody tell you, you can do this and you can't do that."

Keith Anderson plans to continue fencing when he starts classes at Northern State College this fall.