Play-fighting to the podium
If you are a parent with Olympic-minded child, think carefully when buying Christmas presents for your little ones. Toy lightsaber? Foam pirate's cutlass? Wooden sword? Any of those could leave you with a British Olympic fencer on your hands.
Fencing has a new weapon as it fights to ditch the image of posh people and gentlemen's clubs. The sport wants childhood fascination with the likes of Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean to become a route into fencing and, potentially, the Great Britain team for a future Olympic Games.
In the five years since the club formed, a combination of aggressive marketing, rock-bottom prices for participants and top-quality coaching has produced three British junior champions, with more certainly on the way. Their target is not 2012, it is 2016 and beyond. But how this experiment fares will say much for the legacy of the London Games.
Video: Inside the Newham Swords fencing club
"We shouldn't be ashamed that kids want to have fun. They see James Bond, Pirates of the Caribbean or Star Wars and want to go and have swordfights," says Piers Martin, the chief executive of British Fencing.
"This is an opportunity to turn that into an activity that could lead to either lifelong participation in sport or up to the Olympic podium and success for the national team."
It is Martin's job to get more people engaging with a sport many people perceive as stuffy and detached from the real world - and he has come to the Newham Leisure Centre to see the opening salvo in that particular battle.
At one end of the sports hall, tiny youngsters waft plastic swords at each other in enthusiastic but wildly wayward fashion. At the other, some of Britain's top young fencers are sparring against coaches who can boast appearances at five Olympic Games and reams of Commonwealth medals.
The idea is that, with time, it should be possible to make the transition from one end of the hall to the other, without losing the sense of play, entertainment and recreation.
Ife Kubler-Agyemang is one who has made that journey. The gregarious 14-year-old bursts with pride as she describes how she got into the sport by watching The Three Musketeers and fighting with wooden spoons in the family kitchen, before her mother found a promotional leaflet for Newham Swords. Now, a few years later, she is the British Under-16 champion.
"When I'm older, I would love to have a fencing club like this one," she says, though she recognises that "you don't get that much money in fencing". Her main aim is to be a barrister in family law, although an Olympic fencer comes a close second.
As a British champion at 14 years of age, there is not much stopping her from achieving the latter. While Britain has produced world-class fencing talents like Kruse and Jo Hutchison in the past, with Laurence Halsted and Chrystall Nicoll hoping to make waves in this week's World Championships in Paris as well as the run-up to London 2012, there is plenty of space available at the top for new talent to thrive in years to come.
"I want to achieve a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics and make the country proud," says 16-year-old Amol Rattan, who took the British Under-18 title earlier this year. He is a member of Newham Swords, where junior membership begins at £5 a month.
"At first, I had no clue what fencing was," he says. "I did Sikh martial arts since I was about four years old but I've always tried different sports to see which one best fits my lifestyle and the way I am. When it came to fencing, I thought: 'This is my sport and I want to excel at it.'
"You don't need all the money in the world to do it, you don't need to be posh. If you have the right club with the right funding and coaches, you can go as far as you want."
On paper, this is the right club, with the funding and coaches to match. Their top fencers join up with Tessa Sanderson's Newham Sports Academy programme, which secures extra funds and support for talented young Olympic hopefuls in the area. As far as coaching goes, Linda Strachan and Pierre Harper have plenty of experience and pedigree, between them competing in every Olympic Games between 1980 and 1992.
But the club's success does not stem from credentials or cash - two of the things that arguably put people off fencing in the first place. The Newham project seems to be working because of the atmosphere it creates.
I have been introduced to plenty of similar projects across a range of sports in the past but have never seen one where the vibrancy, energy and impact were as tangible as inside that sports hall.
Video: Behind the scenes with GB at the Lansdowne Club
Last time I reported on fencing I was inside the Lansdowne Club in central London - a top-class fencing venue, fine training base for GB and long-term supporter of British Fencing, but perhaps not a backdrop likely to alter public perceptions of fencing. Newham could not look or feel more different, from the club's deliberately silly and informal warm-up games to the parents chatting on the sidelines.
"When we started five years ago, we thought we'd have a nice, small community club but 400 kids came through the doors in two weeks," remembers Strachan. "We had good marketing. Pierre and I put leaflets through doors and put on a couple of fun days where we did a show in our Olympic tracksuits. It was something different for kids from this area.
"At the beginning, it was hard to sell. Fencing was regarded as an elitist sport. But putting it across as a fun sport gets these kids hooked - and there's a strong tradition in the East End of kids with fighting skills in the martial arts. The stigma is still there but it's getting better. We're helping to take the sport off the ground."
Strachan is confident her club has the support of the community - "I'm a teacher, five of my schoolchildren are here and it's teaching them a discipline that transfers into their performance at school" - but, more importantly for British Fencing, she believes the precedent set here can be transferred across the country.
"If clubs are willing to share experiences and talk, this can be replicated anywhere, as long as coaches have heart to do it," she says.
That gives Martin, as chief executive, plenty to think about. Newham is not the only club in the country aware that fencing's image could do with some surgery. But not every club or coach will enjoy being told to change. He is understandably cautious.
"We've got a long-term strategy and we're aiming to be a world-leading fencing family by 2020. We want to make sure we're giving kids just starting out a target beyond 2012. It's going to be a great party in 2012 but a stepping stone for some of these young kids.
"We've seen some of the kids here competing in national championships after only two years of fencing. Look at the size of the club, too. In such a short period of time it has grown to be one of our biggest.
"We want to help other coaches and clubs to replicate this but it's not the only way of doing things. Localities are different."
The biggest motivation for the next generation of fencers would be seeing a Briton fence their way to gold at London 2012. The current World Championships will go some way towards gauging how likely that is.
Fencing is divided into three disciplines - foil, epee and sabre - and the British men's foil squad is the most likely source of a medal this week, despite injury to star man Kruse.
I'll be in Paris this weekend to see how they do. I'll also be keeping an eye on the women's equivalent as well as the men's and women's sabre competitors, to see what precedent they can set for Newham's budding pirates.