Meet the Maryland teen representing Japan at the Maccabiah

Sam Cohen will attend Pennsylvania State University this fall.
Photo by Justin Katz

Sam Cohen’s fencing career started with an accident.

In 2003, Sam’s father, Andrew Cohen, a veteran fencer from his high school and college days, entered a fencing tournament in Honolulu, where the Cohens were living.

Cohen’s wife and a 4-year-old Sam cheered him on. Despite having not practiced regularly for five years, Andrew Cohen won a bronze medal.

When Cohen came home, he started playing with his son when Sam “picked up one of my weapons and proceeded to put a hole in the wall,” Cohen says. “So we said, ‘OK, when you get older you can fence.’”

More than a decade later, a 17-year-old Sam is in Akko, Israel, for the Maccabiah international Jewish sporting event. Among 10,000 athletes from 80 countries, Sam, of Kensington, is one of two athletes representing Japan.

That’s where Sam was born — in Iwate prefecture on the northeast coast of the country’s main island. Andrew Cohen met his wife, Chieko Fukodate, while teaching English to grade school children in the country following his college graduation. When Sam was born, they gave him the Japanese name Samu Fukodate. The family moved to Maryland in 2004.

“When you’re in the middle of a bout, it does give you an adrenaline rush,” Sam says on a recent afternoon. He’s at DC Fencers Club in Silver Spring, where he trains 3-to-4 times each week, waiting for a private lesson with the club’s head coach, Janusz Smolenski.

Smolenski, a master fencer, started the club when he immigrated from Poland in 1990. Dozens of flags decorate one of the club’s walls. Israel’s Star of David and Japan’s red sun hang side by side. Swords clang and people intermittently shout, “Ready? Fence!” — signifying a bout has started.

“He’s very quiet. He doesn’t talk too much,” says Smolenski. But “he’s a good kid. He tries hard.”

During Sam’s private lesson, the two take turns going on the offensive as they clash swords along a mat that runs the width of the training area. On either side of them are teenagers sparring.

Sam Cohen, left, practices fencing with DC Fencers Club coach Janusz
Photo by Justin Katz

Observing the teens is one of the club’s coaches, David Ruskin, who occasionally offers them advice. Called “strip coaching,” the insight a coach can provide by having a different view on the action can be critical for fencers in competition. Ruskin will do just that for Sam in Israel.

“I’m very excited for Sam,” Ruskin says. “It’s a nice capstone to his high school fencing career before he goes off to college.”

Sam, who graduated from Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, will attend Pennsylvania State University in the fall, majoring in physics. The school has a sizable fencing club, and more than a dozen new fencers are joining this school year. The school’s team accepts only the club’s top six fencers.

Back at DC Fencers Club, Andrew Cohen has arrived to pick up Sam following his lesson. He explains that because Sam will be the only Japanese fencer at the Maccabiah, he will train with the American delegation, some of whose members he knows from national competitions held in the United States.

“I am pretty nervous because it’s going to be my first international tournament as well,” says Sam, who will compete on July 9.

Fencing became a sport in the 14th and 15th century. Both Germany and Italy have claimed to be the sport’s birthplace, according to the website of the International Olympic Committee, the governing body of the Olympics.

The goal of fencing is to hit the opponent with your sword while fending off his or her attempts to hit you. Every successful hit triggers a light to come on — the white attire fencers wear is wired to react when a sword touches it — and is worth a point.

After every point is scored, the fencers return to their starting
positions. Whoever is first to score the predesignated number of points wins.

Sam Cohen will be one of two athletes
representing Japan at the Maccabiah.
Photo courtesy of DC Fencers Club

The sport incorporates three styles: sabre, epée and foil, each named after the rapier-like swords used.

Sam fences sabre which imitates combat on horses. It is the only style that allows fencers to attack with both the point and side of the blade. Fencers score points by hitting their opponents above the waist.

“You want to hit somebody from the waist up because hitting somebody in the leg means they hit you in the head,” says Ruskin. Also, hitting someone in the leg is not effective because “they are still on their horse.”

Sabre fencers are more aggressive than others because of a system of rules called “right of way,” which benefits the person who makes the first move in terms scoring points.

The family hopes to send footage of Sam fencing to Sam’s grandmother in Japan.

It would be the first time she sees her grandson fence, and if that happens, “I’d be really happy,” says Sam.

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