If you happen to be driving along Miller Ranch Road in Edwards late on a Monday night, you might see them trading thrusts and parries in Battle Mountain High School’s cafeteria like Vader and Obi Wan dueling on the Death Star. In fact, among the white cotton jackets, mesh-faced helmets, and wicked-looking weaponry locked in the school’s armory—a closet of the woodshop that’s been repurposed as a salle d’armes—you’ll find a pair of sabres of the battery-operated, glowing Hasbro variety. Coaches Cooter Overcash and Don Watson sometimes employ them to great effect when recruiting students to their team, one of only two high school–based fencing programs in the state.
“Everybody wants to be a Jedi,” explains Watson, a lounge singer with a white goatee who’s famous locally as the leader of the Vail Valley Band, after a recent Saturday practice session.
Nods from Overcash, a mustachioed, recently retired Vail firefighter who’s collapsed in a folding chair beside Watson; both masters are sweat-stained after the team’s workout.
“What fencing really is, it’s physical chess,” Overcash adds. “You’re offering invitations and strategies and feints and persistent sustained attacks. Predictable attacks become invitations. That’s why I like it.”
Overcash met Watson in 1998 when the après singer was moonlighting as Vail Mountain School’s fencing and theater coach: a malfunctioning fog machine triggered the auditorium’s fire alarm during a sold-out performance of A Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Overcash, an actor who dabbled in community theater, knew only stage combat, so he asked Watson for proper fencing lessons. Now best friends, they’ve been dueling ever since.
With coaching from John Wills—an internationally recognized fencing master who retired to Vail from Pennsylvania—the pair have also been teaching fencing in Vail, Avon, and most recently Edwards, where they founded the BMHS team in 2009.
“The program started because Cooter and I wanted a chance to work out,” Watson says. “John helped us become better teachers. Imagine if you were opening your own par 3 course and Arnold Palmer leaned over the fence and said, ‘Do you want some help?’ John’s guidance has been a godsend.”
After the unknown BMHS boys team took third place at the 2012 high school national championships in Cleveland—creating something of a sensation—a local physician named Gary Weiss endowed the program, enabling Watson and Overcash to offer free fencing instruction, on donated equipment, to kids, teens, and adults from all across the valley. (Although the team is based at BMHS, it’s open to all ages and comers.) Today’s practice, which attracted a dozen combatants, included a half-dozen newcomers who had never before held a sword. Not that it mattered.
“We’re genetically predisposed to do this,” explains Watson, a former collegiate fencer who still competes in the 50-plus age bracket and a few days earlier had won a foil tournament in Grand Junction. “We don’t have claws; we don’t have sharp teeth. Ever since we came out of the trees, we’ve had to have something in our hands. It’s fun to see how naturally people do this.”
Especially one Husky fencer, Adrian Andrasi, an exchange student from Slovakia who fenced in the European junior championships in Budapest in 2013 and has his mesh-protected eyes on the Olympics.
“We’re faster than pucks and balls and arrows,” Watson notes. “There is only one thing in all of sport that is faster than the tip of an Olympic fencer, and that is a speeding bullet.”