Sport of fencing comes to Alpharetta



ALPHARETTA, Ga. — One could date fencing back to when two children picked up some sticks and started to poke each other as their friends gathered around to watch and yell.

But fencing is more than just two people prodding or jabbing one another.

It’s a worldwide sport of finesse with roots as far back as the 12th century B.C., and since November, it has found a home in Alpharetta.

Walid Mahran, an Egyptian native who moved to Atlanta in 1999, opened the International Fencing Center in Alpharetta’s Windward Plaza because he wanted to take his 17-year career to the next level.

“Alpharetta is a very prestigious and nice community,” Mahran said. “Also, lots of my students come from far away to learn from me. In Alpharetta, we’ll be serving their part of town, and at the same time, there are a lot of school districts around. So we hope we can attract more students here.”

Mahran holds a graduate degree in fencing and sports psychology from the CRPS de Bordeaux in France and an undergraduate degree in fencing from Helwan University in Cairo. His reputation — three-time Olympic qualifier, more than 40 international competitive awards — is what attracted the Gianneschi family to take lessons from Mahran.

Julia Gianneschi was first interested in fencing after watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics and has competed for about the last four years.

“Julia started at another club in Suwanee,” said her mother, Lisa Gianneschi. “We came to Walid about two years ago because he is very well-known for [fencing] in the Atlanta and Southeast area.”

Mahran takes his competitive students to about five tournaments a season.

“You don’t get rained out in fencing,” Lisa Gianneschi said. “Cold or hot, it doesn’t matter. You’re always going.”

But because the sport is still relatively small, the national fencing community is strong.

“When you go to bigger competitions, there will be 120 girls,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing. You see the same people over and over at the tournaments. [The girls] make friends from all over the place and rekindle old friendships at the tournament.

“They are fierce competitors when they are out there on the strip,” she said, “but friends when it is all said and done.”

The International Fencing Center offers lessons not only to competitive fencers but also to anyone who wants a new hobby or has never picked up a saber or foil in his life.

“For any level and any age,” Mahran said. “Some just want to learn the sport for recreation and that’s fine. Some parents bring their young kids in and want to go far. I can go as far as you want.”

Most of the students at the center are already students of Mahran and live closer to the new center than the Northeast Athletic Club or, in Julia’s case, prefer to take lessons with Mahran about every day.

Mahran said he believes fencing is growing in the United States, especially in the last 10 years. Atlanta had not had anyone qualify for the U.S. national team until after Mahran moved here. But Mahran’s coaching has led some of his students to take fencing to the collegiate level at the Air Force Academy, Ohio State and Princeton.

“It’s a great sport for a young age,” Mahran said. “It teaches good discipline, focus and coordination.”

And for Lisa Gianneschi, the best of fencing is watching when “the girls make the boys cry,” she said, laughing.

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