Fencing academy displaced after Riverside flooding

When Carlos Ablanedo of the D’Alerta Fencing Academy learned that the community center his team used for practice at Oviedo’s Riverside Park had been flooded by stormwater from Hurricane Ian in September, he thought their equipment would be fine. 

After all, the team stored most of their gear in containers on high shelves within the facility. But as flooding continued and time went on, it became clear the situation would have major repercussions for the fencing group.

“The place flooded so much the water inside there went so high that all those containers flipped over and opened up and the water just went so high that everything got wet,” Ablanedo said. “And then the building was closed for so long that everything turned mildewy, like black mold all over the stuff.”

Clothing, masks, weapons, shoes, practice dummies and more were damaged in the flooding, which Ablanedo said resulted in a nearly $20,000 loss of equipment for his team. In addition to the equipment, D’Alerta Fencing Academy had also lost the practice facility that had served as the group’s primary home for many years. 

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Damages to Riverside Park were significant, with Ian flooding the community center with 25 inches of water and destroying whatever sat below the waterline. 

Since the flooding, Ablanedo has not been able to find a suitable place for his team to practice.

“I checked two or three facilities that looked like we might be able to get in there but they said they didn’t have any time available,” Ablanedo said. “So it’s very hard to compete for that space and I tried looking at renting a space…at the mall… but when I got there, it was too late.”

The faces of fencing

Assistant coach John Compton has been with the D’Alerta for nearly 11 years, fencing alongside both his 21-year-old son and 18-year-old daughter. He said the group is a labor of love that he and others like Ablanedo are dedicated to keeping going.

“We have a really rich history of producing pretty amazing fencers from our little community of Oviedo,” Compton said. “And so we’re bound and determined to find a way to keep this going to honor that tradition.”

David Gallucci’s 16-year-old daughter, Julianna Gallucci, attends Hagerty High School and has been a student with the group for the last five years. He said her interest in fencing began when she was given the “Spiderwick Chronicles” book series.

“She loved reading and she devoured these books. One of the main characters was a girl…but this girl fences and out of the blue…she said ‘I want to try fencing,’” Gallucci said. “We contacted Carlos back then and he said ‘yeah, come on out’. She just fell in love with it from the get-go.”

Julianna said she was lucky to find D’Alerta. 

“I didn’t realize at the time that there’s very few (fencing) clubs in the Central Florida area,” Julianna said. “So we were very fortunate that there was one close to us in Oviedo, and my coach is amazing. He’s really great at what he does. And so the rest is history.”

According to the Central Florida Division of USA Fencing website, there are 14 fencing clubs in the Central Florida region, including the D’Alerta. 

Julianna said that with time, she’s grown to consider her coach and team to be like a second family, but she said that they now only meet once a week (down from three) and lack of a consistent practice space has thinned the group. 

“I think the inconsistency of having our own place, it’s driven some people away because currently we have to practice in my friend’s driveway because of the building getting damaged,” Julianna said. “And it’s just, there’s just a lot of inconveniences that come with it.”

D’Alerta members practice at the Riverside Park facility prior to the flooding from Hurricane Ian. Photo courtesy of Carlos Ablanedo.

Compton said at its peak, D’Alerta maintained around 50 fencing members. Now, he said that number is around 20 to 25. 

Compton said the group hopes to find support within the community. 

“I think it’s excellent just for the community to know what we do here,” Compton said. “I know we’re a community that gets behind things they think are worthy and are helpful. And so I would encourage us to think about how we can continue to foster and support our local fencing community as well.”

Ablanedo said anyone interested in donating to the group can contact the treasurer Julio Vega at Vaiso@perfectbalancepa.org

Ivan Garibay and his daughter Lia are the ones who’ve offered their driveway as temporary practice space. 

“It’s been great to see Lia grow in her fencing career, to get better and start winning competitions and things like that,” Garibay said. “For me, it’s just a little bit of staying fit and doing something fun we can share, I can share with my daughter, like father-daughter bonding.”

Not all members of D’Alerta are competitive, but for those who are, the lack of a consistent space can be a disadvantage, Compton said.

“We’ve had some really good luck in developing some fencers who win medals and who have gone on to compete nationally who have participated in the Junior Olympics,” Compton said. “Both my kids were Junior Olympians.”

The Maestro 

Ablanedo’s first exposure to fencing was in high school in New Jersey but he couldn’t stick with it. He had to have a job in order to support his family who had immigrated from Cuba. It wasn’t until after college when he started working for NASA as an engineer that Ablanedo met Mario D’Alerta, a fencing master. D’Alerta discovered Ablanedo’s desire to learn the sport while helping him translate technical documents for an aerospace suit she was developing. 

The two immediately began fencing together that day after work, back in 1978. 

“He would teach me out on the boardwalk in Cape Canaveral and on the sidewalk and I would do lessons every day with him until I became competitive.”

Ablanedo is a 1984 U.S. Olympic Epee squad member. He continued to train and fence competitively until the birth of his first child, which is when he shifted into teaching.  

Compton said Ablanedo’s master-level experience in the sport is an asset for their fencers.

“We’re really fortunate enough to have Carlos who has been trained in Europe on all those years and years of history,” Compton said. “It’s something that’s awesome that we get to be able to pass down to future generations and also to the young and old.” 

Carlos Ablanedo (left) stands with competitive members of the D’Alerta Fencing Academy. Photo courtesy of Carlos Ablanedo.

Affectionately known as Maestro to his students, Gallucci said what stands out about Ablanedo is how deeply involved he is with both the sport and the community. 

“I say he’s probably forgotten more than most people will ever know,” Gallucci said. “He seems to know just about everyone in the fencing community. He’s got a world of knowledge…I think he loves  passing that technique and wisdom and so on down to his students.”

Tracie Handberg’s 21-year-old son started training with Ablanedo when he was 11 years old and returns to him for training when he’s on break as a student at the University of Florida. She said Ablanedo’s commitment to his students, even to past students like her son, is clear. 

“You’re welcomed back with open arms and he does keep up those relationships,” Handberg said. “He really cares about his students. He puts his heart and soul into this club.”

His students said Ablanedo is committed to the team, literally taking the shoes off of his own feet at one point when one of his students needed him to. 

“He will basically do anything for his students,” Julianna said. “I remember one time we were at a tournament and my teammate forgot his shoes. And my coach gave him his shoes…so my coach had to walk around in his socks all day, just so my teammate could have the chance to fence well.”

Continuing the search 

Oviedo’s Parks and Recreation Director Paul Belden said a timeline for Riverside’s reconstruction is not yet available as the city continues to assess the damages to their facility but progress is being made.

“We’re finalizing the air quality assessment report,” Belden said. “And as soon as that is finalized, we’re optimistic that we’ll be close to the complete building damage assessment report by the engineers.”

Ablanedo said at the very least the team needs a space that could accommodate the strips they fence on. 

“I think that the room would have to be about, I want to say 60 feet long by about 40 feet wide,” Ablanedo said. “Probably the smallest place to be able to do actual fencing. I can teach classes in smaller, a little bit smaller than that. But to actually do fencing, you need at least that much space.”

Compton said one difficulty in finding a new space may be that some facilities fear potential issues of liability due to the perceived notion that the sport is dangerous. 

“A lot of places worry that fencing is a dangerous sport and that could be not further from the truth,” Compton said. “ I think sometimes that can be like a barrier and we have insurance that protects us from everything like that. We just simply need, you know, a facility that has a space for us to set up our equipment and the flexibility that allows us to practice a couple of times a week.”

Another concern for the group is finding an indoor practice space before outdoor temperatures start to rise. 

“Once we hit August we could, you know, we’re in layers of protection and that’s just not safe to do in Florida heat,” Compton said. “And we’re always very cautious and we care about our kids, and we really worry about their safety. When the heat starts to kick in we will have to look for an alternative at that point.”

Julianna said a consistent space indoors to practice would make a big difference for herself and her teammates in the coming months. 

“It would just help create a sense of stability, having our own building,” Julianna said. “And hopefully we could have practice more than one day a week and that would really help us out a lot.”

Compton said that anyone on the fence about providing a possible solution for the group should know how meaningful that help could be. 

“What a way to invest into the future of some of our youth in the area,” Compton said. “It’s an Olympic sport with an incredibly rich tradition that we have available here in Oviedo. Meet some of the kids who fence, be around some of the parents who support it, and I think they would realize how much it benefits us.”

As the D’Alerta Fencing Academy continues to search for a new location, Gallucci said the group has continued to persevere in spite of the situation’s challenges. 

“They take enormous pride in their sport,” Gallucci said. “They know it’s something that sets them apart…I think that keeps them going.” 

Ablanedo, who turns 70 this March, said that after all of these years, he still gets a lot out of training his students.

“They’re happy that they learned something…You see a big smile on their face,” Ablanedo said. “You know they’re interested in what they’re doing, and that gives me a lot of good feeling that I’m doing something worthwhile.”

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