A garage sale changed James Askew’s life forever. It was there he stumbled upon a fencing foil for sale. He purchased it on a whim, largely because “It’s a sword! What guy doesn’t want to have a sword?” Askew exclaimed. He said it also helped that the foil was cheap—maybe $5 or $10—since he was a freshman at the University of Nebraska at Omaha at the time, at home in Norfolk to visit his parents.
With sword in hand, he took up the sport of fencing in 1990. He joined UNO’s fencing club, where he bought the rest of the equipment (including a jacket, gloves, and weapon mask), at a discount. In 1992 he competed in the Junior Olympics in Kansas City.
“Qualifying was easy,” he said, continuing that there were not many people competing that year. It was his first national fencing competition. “I did terribly,” he admitted. “I’d only been fencing for around a year and I was fencing against kids with coaches.” The experience didn’t stop him.
He continued to pursue his newfound passion, and competed at the national level in multiple divisions. In 2006, he enrolled in U.S. Fencing Association Coaches College to earn certification for epee fencing (an epee is wider, thicker, and heavier than a foil), and in 2007 he earned certification for foil fencing. Coaching fencing is a pastime he puts a great deal of energy and attention to, along with being president of the Omaha Fencing Club.
Fencing is a reprieve for him—during the day his attention is held by his job as a researcher at University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Eppley Center for Cancer Research, working in genetics.
Although genetics and sword fighting may seem worlds apart, Askew said they have one skillset in common. “Analysis,” said Askew. “You need a very analytical mind. If you walk into either with a good plan you’ll do well.” His analytical approach works well in research, as it does in competitions.
Askew also finds balance is necessary when it comes to competing and coaching. “It’s an interesting dichotomy—the difference between coaching and competing with someone.” He loves competing, but coaching holds a special place in his heart. “I love watching the students grow and mature.”
Askew appreciates that the sport is accessible to all ages. Some of the students are under age 10, but “I’ve coached retired policemen in their 50s,” he said. “There’s lots of divisions by age.” He encourages people of all ages to try fencing. “It’s interesting watching older participants discover the complexity,” he added.
“James has a great mind for fencing,” said fellow coach Alex Bucevicius. “His understanding of tactics allows him to say, ‘yes, this is what needs to be done to beat the other person.’ He sees the problem and solves it super quick. The Omaha Fencing Club would not be what it is today
The Omaha Fencing Club was a different organization around 2009 when Askew assumed the duties of president. “It was one guy teaching out of a community center,” he said.
These days, the club has locations at Brownell-Talbot School and Montclair Community Center. Askew was one of the driving forces behind a multitude of changes. The first year he was president, the Omaha Fencing Club became incorporated. In 2014, it became a 501(c)(3) organization. They added sports safety training. The club is also now affiliated with USA Fencing, and hosts a fall tournament that is USAF-sanctioned.
These changes have led to higher interest in the sport locally. Askew said the club typically has close to 40 students each session these days.
Although Askew has worked hard to make fencing a more organized sport here in Omaha, he still loves participating. In 2016, he won two bronze medals for fencing events in the Cornhusker State Games. Askew doesn’t typically get a great deal of attention for his fencing accomplishments except, Askew said with a laugh, “About every four years, when the Olympics happen.”
Like most good leaders, Askew refuses to take the full credit for his organization’s success. “I have great people around me,” Askew said. “It can be a really complicated sport and really, the end goal is to get people to have fun.”
Visit omahafencingclub.org for more information.
This article was printed in the February/March 2020 edition of B2B. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.