A point of balance
Fencing program gives blind students confidence to move through life
At 79, Eric Sollee is one of the nation's most experienced fencing instructors. He's a former All-American. He has competed all over the world. He has coached at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.
Today he has met his match: Stephen Giannaros, a sturdy, 30-year-old legally blind man from Medford, who has the tip of his foil jammed squarely into Sollee's neck.
It's a Tuesday morning at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, where fencing is used to teach mobility and spatial awareness to blind and visually impaired students. Giannaros has just scored a ''touch," a powerful jab that staggers Sollee and bends Giannaros's silver metal foil into a big upside-down U.
''Thank you, Steve," Sollee says with a laugh as he shakes off the impact. ''Whoa! Take it easy, man."
The Carroll Center's fencing class is unique in the nation. It has been an integral part of the Centre Street school's rehabilitation program since the 1950s, when the Rev. Thomas Carroll Jr., the school's founder, introduced the sport to help students improve their dexterity, balance, and coordination.
School officials say the program couldn't continue today without Sollee, a beloved instructor, whose gentle, skilled hands have taught more than 1,000 students to see the world in a new way.
''I think he's great. He cares about the students and he explains things very well," said Giannaros, who enrolled at the school six weeks ago to learn to cope with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease that is slowly robbing him of his remaining sight.
''Without any vision," Giannaros continued as he removed his mask and grabbed his walking cane, ''it's hard to do this. But he shows you exactly what to do."
Carroll, who spent his life helping the blind, learned to fence at Holy Cross. He was working at a veterans hospital in Connecticut in the 1940s when he discovered the sport was an excellent way to teach blind patients how to use a cane.
Carroll's mobility training was cutting edge. While other programs offered only basic skills, the goal of Carroll's program was independent mobility, the ability to go anywhere and do anything.
Fencing was critical to the school's program. It not only helped his students practice the basic foot and hand movements needed to use a cane, it also taught them how to react quickly and safely in a rapidly changing environment.
It's one thing to cross an empty city street. Carroll knew it was quite another for a blind person to do it in a crowd at rush hour.
Rabih Dow, a former Carroll Center student who now serves as the school's rehabilitation director, knows first-hand how important the skills learned in fencing class can be.
Dow was rushing across a street a few years ago, trying to catch a bus, when his cane was hit by an onrushing car and sent spinning out of reach. Stranded in the middle of a busy Boston intersection with no cane, Dow relied on the mobility techniques he learned in fencing class to get safely back to the sidewalk.
''I maintained my orientation to my environment. I never lost track of where I was and where I came from," he said. ''That's fencing. That's not the [traditional] cane techniques. I was reacting to a dangerous environment that was changing fast, while maintaining my spatial orientation to fixed and moving objects. That's what fencing is."
The fencing class at the center has changed little since Carroll introduced it in 1954. Sollee, who started teaching there in 1968, is only the second instructor.
Classes are small. Students are brought along slowly. Instruction is hands-on. Sollee starts by teaching the basics: How to hold a foil, the proper fencer's stance, and a few standard moves. As students improve and grow more comfortable with their weapons, they're taught more advanced moves and encouraged to compete against each other.
Dr. Eli Pelli, a professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School and a senior scientist at the Schepens Eye Research Institute in Boston, said the school's program has a number of potential benefits.
''People tend to change their lifestyle when they lose vision; they become less mobile," he said. ''This kind of training gives them exercise and keeps them active. It can also help with balance. Learning balance and having the ability to recover your balance when your vision is impaired is important."
Sollee's classroom is small and cozy. It feels like a living room. There's a piano in one corner, a coffee maker in another. When class starts, the room explodes with noise and activity. Foils clang against one another. Students, lined up in front of Sollee, calling out ''Measure!" and ''Fence!" as they take turns sparring with their teacher.
The exchanges can be empowering.
''Fencing gives me freedom," said Amber Ladwig, a 19-year-old student with cerebral palsy. ''When I'm fencing, it's a time to forget about cerebral palsy. Fencing to me is like gym class."
''You're doing something that most people with vision can't do," said Carmine Rivera, a 43-year-old mother of four from Connecticut. ''When you do it right, it feels good to nail [Sollee] right in the chest."
Sollee loves to spar with his students. He trades swift shots, bellowing ''Touché!" when they score a touch and ''Passé!" when the foil brushes past his shoulder.
If he loses a bout, some of which he fights blindfolded, Sollee asks for ''la belle," a French fencing term meaning ''the beautiful." At the Carroll Center, the term means the losing fencer is asking for a chance for a final, face-saving touch.
Sollee takes full advantage of the rules.
''Eric's enthusiasm is infectious, it's absolutely great," Dow said. ''His understanding of the application of fencing skills to orientation for the blind is quite deep; he knows it well. He's a fantastic coach, there's no question about it. Students worship this guy."
Sollee's story is as unique as the class he teaches.
Sollee grew up in California and moved to the Philippines with his family in 1937 to escape the Depression. His father worked as a construction engineer in Manila until the Japanese placed his family in a prison camp at the start of World War II.
Sollee returned to the United States after the war, served in the Army, and went to Harvard on the GI bill in 1948. He excelled at fencing from the start. He was captain of the Harvard freshman and varsity teams, and in his senior year he was named an All-American.
Sollee was still fencing competitively when he took the head coaching job at MIT in 1968. Harvard coach Peter Brand, who served as an assistant on Sollee's MIT staff, remembers squaring off against him in a New England regional tournament.
''He was a fierce competitor," said Brand, who lives in Needham and has been at Harvard since 1999. ''Even in his 40s he was still a formidable, tough guy. He was just like he is now. He came out extremely aggressively. He was boisterous, but in a positive way. It never grated on you. He was a winner. He absolutely hated to lose."
Sollee, who left MIT in 1992 and now volunteers on Brand's staff at Harvard, still hates to lose. He suffered a stroke in December that temporarily paralyzed the right side of his body and left him with numbness below his knees. It hasn't slowed him at all.
Sollee still drives to class every Tuesday and Friday morning from the Newton home he shares with his wife, Natalie. He attended a number of Harvard matches this season, one of the Crimson's best in recent memory. A cane now occupies his right hand, so he fences with his left.
''Most people would have just walked away," Brand said. ''What he does is very difficult. Teaching this sport to beginners takes patience and perseverance. Even at his age, he still has that enthusiasm, that dynamic love for the game."
But now class is over. The noise has stopped. The foils, masks, and padded vests go back in the storage closet. Rivera lingers for a moment.
She has been legally blind for five years. Until recently, she's refused to use a cane, fearing it would make her children uncomfortable and be an acknowledgement she's losing her sight.
Learning to use one hasn't been easy.
She has good days and bad days. But with some encouragement from Dow and some gentle guidance from Sollee's expert hands, she's slowly starting to get it.
''I finally said, 'Hey, I have to use the cane,' " she said. ''At least when I go out there on my own with the cane, which I'm scared of still, I can think about what I've learned in fencing. I now know I'm going to be safe. All I have to do is stop, think, and believe that if it worked in fencing, it will work. And you know what? It does work."
James Whitters can be reached at email@example.com.