When she was 10 years old, Marielle Luke was assigned to do a project on someone she admired. When she picked Sada Jacobson, mom Julie Rabeau figured her daughter was truly serious about the sport of fencing.
Jacobson is a two-time Olympic medalist in sabre, and she's probably not the subject of many kids' school reports.
Then again, Luke isn't quite like many kids.
Now 18, she's the president of the South High senior class, she's been nationally ranked in junior-level epee since she was 12 and she's headed to Temple University on a fencing scholarship.
"When you're 10 years old, sword fighting sounds like the coolest thing ever," Luke said. "Just how it was so different than any other sport is what drew me to it.
"…I'm just kind of in love with it, the unique nature of it. It's very much a mental and physical challenge, and I found that really interesting. It's so different than any other sport I had ever done before."
Luke recently returned from a successful trip to the Lower 48, where she collected a gold medal at a regional junior meet in Washington and placed sixth at a national senior-level meet in Virginia.
Between the meets she visited Temple in Philadelphia, where she was offered a spot on the Owls' NCAA Division I fencing team. She'll attend the school on a combination athletic and academic scholarship, Rabeau said.
In November, Luke placed 16th among 186 fencers in the women's epee competition at the junior national championships in Milwaukee. The meet was for fencers 19 and under, and it gave Luke a chance to test herself against some college-level competitors.
"It was very exciting because those are the kinds of events I (will) compete in collegiately," she said. "It was very reassuring that this is something I can achieve – that I've worked hard to keep up with the big dogs."
Coaching by Skype
Luke was living in Las Vegas when she first got it in her head that she wanted to be a fencer. But it wasn't until she moved to Anchorage with her mom and older sister Marley that she got her chance.
She learned the YMCA was giving lessons and begged her mom to sign her up. By age 12, she was fencing competitively.
"She was very persistent about it," Rabeau said. "Who knew we'd find a two-time Olympian who would help her develop her skills?"
The coach was Wayne Johnson, who had earned spots on the 1976 and 1980 U.S. Olympic fencing teams. He landed in Anchorage in the 1990s and founded the Fencing Center of Alaska in 2003. A few years later, Luke became a star pupil.
When Johnson moved to Arizona, Luke found a new coach — Kevin Mar of the Washington Fencing Academy in Issaquah. She trains locally with the Anchorage Fencing Club and with practice coach Jacquie Parker, and her mom often records practices and emails them to Mar, who then provides analysis via Skype.
Luke travels frequently to the Lower 48 for competitions — about once a month, Parker said. Rabeau, a trauma nurse, works two jobs to make it all possible.
An electrifying sport
Fencing is one of the oldest sports in the world. Its roots are in dueling, which has been around as long as there has been war, according to "The Theory and Practice of Fencing" by Julio Martinez Castello.
When the modern Olympics began in 1896, fencing was among the sports contested.
"A lot of people don't know about it because it is a very obscure sport," Luke said. "The most common stereotype is we use actual swords. I tell people, 'Oh no, it's electronic,' and they say, 'Oh no, you get an electrical shock?' ''
No shocks, but definitely some bruises.
Fencing has three disciplines – epee, saber and foil. Epee is Luke's speciality, and it's the only one where the entire body is fair game.
"Epee" (pronounced EPP-ay) is the French word for sword, and of fencing's three disciplines, it is the one most like a traditional swordfight. In saber and foil, everything is above the waist.
Epeeists wear head-to-toe uniforms woven with a protective Kevlar-like material. Their faces are completely covered by a wire mask lined with mesh, and women wear a hard-shell chest protector under their uniform.
The weapon's handle plugs into an electric cord that goes up the fencer's sleeve and wraps behind their back, where it comes out and connects to a scoring box. When the point of the epee touches something with enough force, it completes the circuit and the scoring box lights up, indicating a point has been scored.
"They hit each other pretty hard," said Rabeau, who is used to seeing bruises on her daughter's body.
Not like the movies
Swordfighting is all over popular culture – think about another Luke and his lightsaber – but usually the movies get it wrong, Luke said.
"I'm always thinking, 'Who taught these people?' They're not doing the disengages right, they're not doing other things right," she said. "Usually a fencer's favorite movie is 'Princess Bride' because the scenes are really done well."
In real life, fencers put in hours of practice. Luke trains three or four hours every day, her mom said. She practices with the Anchorage Fencing Club twice a week and on other days she hits the gym for cross-training or Skypes with Mar or works with a personal trainer to increase her explosiveness.
She does all of this while maintaining a 3.5 grade-point average. Luke is also the president of her senior class and was the president of her junior class too.
"Marielle's dedication and passion are the primary components that have propelled her success," Parker said.
Asked what makes a good fencer, Luke also cited passion and hard work. But there's more to it than that.
"You're always constantly moving with your legs and kind of squatting down, so it's actually a huge lower-body workout and core workout," Luke said.
When on the attack, a fencer lunges. When on the defense, she dodges. Movement is constant, and novice fencers are likely to be sore the next day. After one of her first lessons, "I remember the next day I was kind of walking funny," Luke said.
The sport is a mental challenge too, she said, because fencers must be able to make corrections mid-bout.
At her most recent competition, Luke faced a girl who exposed her inner arm every time she stepped forward. But every time Luke tried to exploit that exposure, the girl struck first.
"I realized it was my tempo giving away my attack," she said. "So the next time I changed the speed I was going and I was able to do it."
She won the bout.