There’s more to fencing than meets the eye, insists Petar Toshkov.
“Fencing is a great sport. I’ve been a professional athlete and have done many sports. Fencing is the most challenging, it took me the longest to learn,” said Toshkov, coach of the Red Deer Fencing club, a 45-member group that meets four times weekly in the Grandview Elementary School gymnasium.
“In Europe it’s called physical chess, so you’re basically playing chess at a high pace,” he continued. “You have to be really smart, a thinker. You have to be physically fit, but also a strategic person who is quick, balanced and co-ordinated. There are more skills needed to compete in fencing than any other sport. It’s very challenging.”
That being said, Toshkov has helped guide more than a few local fencers into provincial and national prominence.
The list includes Zac Zanussi, 17, 13-year-old Riley Norman, who recently took top honours in the under-17 epee event of the Don Laszio Open at Calgary — a competition that attracted top fencers from throughout Western Canada — Nathaniel Johnson, Devyn Hurry and University of Calgary student Karis Langvand.
Hurry is ranked No. 1 in Canada in the U17 epee, while Langvand, who fences with a club in Calgary and works with Toshkov while in Red Deer on weekends, is among the top five in the nation in senior women’s epee.
Toshkov was hired by the Red Deer Fencing Club in 2009 after holding a variety of instructional posts.
He taught the sport at San Jose University, Stanford University and the San Jose Fencing Centre, as well with the Hawaii Fencers Club.
A native of Bulgaria, he is a former national champion of his country and a two-time World Cup medalist. He was ranked among the top 100 fencers in the world over a five-year stretch and was once ranked as high as 30th.
Despite his personal success, he never competed in the Olympics due to ‘new rules’ that were aimed at having a more global representation instead of a glut of European fencers.
“I was at the (Olympic) qualifying competition twice but didn’t make it,” said Toshkov.
“The new rules were not fair to Europeans. I was top 30 in the world and would have gone to Olympics under the old rules. The new rules allowed maybe the 400th-ranked fencer in the world to compete because he’s from a different region.
“Instead of removing fencing from the Olympics, which was threatened, the Olympic committee decided to cut down the numbers, so they made new rules (under which) really strong fencers can’t go, but weak fencers can go. It’s kind of weird.”
Toshkov did coach with the Bulgarian national team in two Summer Olympics — at Atlanta and Sydney — and was negotiating to become the coach of either the Ireland or Iran national team when Norm Wiebe, a co-founder of the Red Deer Club, came calling.
“I kind of knew Norm. He called me and we negotiated,” said Toshkov. “I was looking at national team positions in Ireland and Iran, but decided that there was too much responsibility and politics involved. I wanted to get away from that for awhile.
“I’m enjoying myself here, it’s a good community and a good challenge for me because Red Deer was not on the map for fencing when I came. Now the kids are doing real good and people know about us.”
Toshkov’s salary and other club expenses are paid via member fees and fundraising bingos and casinos.
“It can be quite difficult for us. For examples, Edmonton and Calgary have more bingos and casinos so fencing clubs there can raise more money,” said Toshkov. “We’re the least subsidized of all clubs in the province but we have the best quality.”
Fencing weapons include the epee, used by the vast majority of Red Deer fencers during competitions, sabre and foil.
“The epee is the most popular of all because it’s more close to the real dueling sword,” said Toshkov. “It’s also the most difficult and heaviest of the three weapons and always draws the most competitors.”
For local fencers hoping to one day approach Olympic status, Toshkov is upfront when offering them advice.
“I told all these kids I can prepare Olympic fencers, but it takes about seven or eight years with one coach and much dedication from both sides,” he said.
“The problem here is there is no university. Look at Zac Zanussi, I built him up as a fencer and he’ll be leaving us next fall to go to a university in Ontario, where he will continue to fence. Most of the universities in Canada that have fencing programs are in Ontario and Quebec.
“I can build fencers up to a certain level here, then they have to leave . . . they’re gone. Unfortunately I don’t have the time with them.”
The Red Deer Fencing Club will host the provincial championship April 13-14 at the Collicutt Centre. The Western Canada championship will be held in Edmonton in May and will be followed by the national finals in Ottawa.
Toshkov hopes to be accompanied to nationals by “four or five” Red Deer fencers.