One Square Mile: The 12-year-old Atlanta fencer

Ryan Droutman always dreamed of being a knight

Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Atlanta Fencer’s Club | East Point | 6 miles south of Atlanta
Ryan Droutman is taking a breather. The 12-year-old fencer sits sweating in a red plastic lawn chair, mask tucked beneath his arm, foil lying across his lap, as he referees a bout between two classmates, one of whom is old enough to be his grandfather. “Annnnnd . . . fence,” says Ryan, suppressing a cough. His hacking is soon drowned out by the thud of tennis shoes on the hollow wooden floor and the clack of steel blades as the two masked combatants advance. Ryan glances over at his father, pacing the periphery, lost in his work on a laptop he’s balancing against his chest. The son knows his dad could pull the plug at any moment. When Ryan woke up this morning, he said that his cold was bad enough to warrant a sick day—until his father reminded him of the strict “no class today, no fencing practice tonight” policy. So Ryan went to school. He’d always dreamed of being a knight, and when horseback riding didn’t quite fulfill the fantasy, his dad signed him up for fencing lessons just before his ninth birthday. “I love the strategic thinking,” says Ryan. “It’s like physical chess.” Ryan competes in weekend tournaments around the country and is currently ranked 69th in the U.S. 12-and-under age group. He has the respect of his elders in this room, one of whom, a software engineer twice his age, challenges the preteen to a bout. Ryan eagerly puts on his black-mesh mask. He gets into position, spreads his feet, and raises his foil en garde. Ryan is instantly the aggressor, lunging forward, feinting right, parrying his opponent’s retreating stab, and scoring a hit on the elder’s shoulder. “Yeah!” says Ryan, releasing a quick burst of coughing, which he tries to stifle through the rest of the victory. “Best two out of three?” says the opponent. “Nope,” says Ryan’s father, keys out, ready to take his son home.

This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.