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At 78, he's the maestro of fencing

They call him Maestro.

He stands before his students with arms outstretched, directing their every move.

But the group Jim Campoli commands is not an orchestra. The only sounds they make are the shuffle of fast-moving feet and the constant clink-clink of metal on metal.

Campoli, 78, is one of three active certified master fencers in Florida.

For more than 60 years, the Oldsmar resident has parried with some of the nation's top competitors.

A few of them are his students.

Organized fencing was hard to come by when Campoli moved to the Tampa Bay area 30 years ago. Now, he teaches four weekly classes in Dunedin, St. Petersburg, Gulfport and Tampa, and fencing clubs are cropping up at several local high schools.

A self-described traditionalist, Campoli's old-fashioned moves still keep opponents of all ages on their toes. In July, he placed eighth in the saber category at a national competition for fencers older than 60.

"We've been beating each other up for 40 years," says longtime opponent Dean Alexander, 73, of Davie. "He's an excellent fencer. He obviously doesn't have the legs he had when he was younger, but he's still dangerous."

Many students, one love

Campoli can hardly remember a time when he wasn't good at fencing. He won his first tournament when he was still in high school in Detroit, a few months after he started fencing at 17. Soon, he was teaching classes when his instructor, renowned saber fencer Bela de Tuscan, had other engagements.

"It just came naturally," he says.

After so many years competing and coaching, Campoli says he's seen just about everything.

There was the fencer with two left feet who somehow ended up becoming a champion.

There were the ballet dancers and karate stars who thought they'd put their fancy footwork to use on the fencing strip.

And then there was Mary Jane.

She was a student in one of his classes. Not a great fencer, he recalls, but she had "great legs."

It took a Coca-Cola, a school dance and about a year and a half of courtship before they married.

They raised six children, moving around from Michigan to Oakville, Ontario and eventually to Florida as Campoli pursued various engineering positions. But that was just his day job.

"He was always wrapped up in fencing," Mary Jane Campoli recalls. "Wherever we moved, if there wasn't a fencing group, he started one."

Twenty-seven years ago, shortly after he moved to the Tampa Bay area, Campoli founded the Dunedin Fencing Club.

The group still meets weekly, and its membership is growing.

Chess at 100 mph

At a recent Thursday night gathering of the club, about a dozen fencers met in a large room at the Dunedin Community Center.

Campoli stands between a pair of dueling students, offering advice as they face off. Good fencing doesn't have to be fancy, he says. It's all about the basics.

"I teach the classical method, because if they want to pick up the latest fad, they can always pick it up later," he says.

He dons his fencing mask, picks up his saber and stands opposite one of his newer students, Jon Kass, 16, of St. Pete Beach.

The St. Petersburg High School student has been studying with Campoli for just over a year. Now he's working to start a fencing club at the school.

As they spar, Campoli shouts out commands.

"Parry," he says, moving his own saber slightly to the left. "Riposte . . . Disengage . . . Lunge."

It takes only a few minutes for Campoli to notice a problem.

His diagnosis? Kass has developed a bad habit of turning his foot as he lunges forward.

His cure? Kass must practice his lunge over and over, 20 times at least. And then again, with his eyes shut.

"All of our practice is based on repetition," Campoli says. "You need to train your muscles."

Training is one of the most rigorous aspects of fencing. An hour of fencing burns roughly the same amount of calories as an hourlong aerobics workout.

Some describe the sport as chess at 100 miles per hour.

For that reason, recruiting and keeping fencers is no easy task.

It takes four to five weeks of intensive footwork training before students are allowed to pick up a foil.

About one third of new students drop out after a few weeks, Campoli says, because they can't handle the physical strain.

Morgan Hunter, a senior at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, stuck with it.

He has studied with Campoli since second grade. This year, he competed in the Junior Olympic Fencing Championships, and he's hoping to continue fencing in college. Campoli, he says, taught him everything he knows.

"He continues to encourage you to get the best out of yourself as far as being a fencer," Hunter says. "But he isn't a slave master with his students."

A wily gentleman

For all its speed and intensity, fencing is also a sport based on principles of decorum.

Before a bout begins, fencers salute each other. They shake hands afterward.

While some younger athletes have let their manners slip, Campoli remains a gentleman on and off the fencing strip, says Jay Avelino, 55, of Safety Harbor.

But don't let that fool you. He's wily, too.

"He has a vicious head parry," Avelino says. "It's very quick, and it's smart."

Quick, smart and a little bit flashy _ like Errol Flynn was on the big screen. That's just the way Campoli likes it.

Campoli says his secret is simple. He studies his opponents' strengths and weaknesses, and then takes advantage of them.

He used to compete in epee and foil events. But now, he just fences saber.

"It's more flamboyant," he says. "It's more like the movies."

On the front lines

For all his devotion to the sport, Campoli has many interests off the fencing strip.

His latest battle has nothing to do with swords or sabers. For more than a year, he and other officers of the Oldsmar Civic Club have been embroiled in tense negotiations with the city over the future of the club's property on St. Petersburg Drive.

Campoli is a trustee and active member of the club. He calls out bingo numbers there on Monday nights. And as club members and city officials haggle to hash out a deal, Campoli has been on the front lines, advocating for the group.

For Campoli, being a leader in the local community is almost as important as fencing.

He is a charter member of the Oldsmar Lions Club, and he served two terms on the Oldsmar City Council from 1981-85.

Campoli also is an avid golfer and proud of it. His handicap is 24 now, he says, but it used to be below 18.

A few golfing prizes sit nestled amid his stash of fencing photos, certificates and trophies at his Shore Drive E home.

Even at a fencing class he's quick to blurt out his golf score for the day.

But fencing is where he's achieved his fame.

Campoli has been a leading organizer of the sport not only in the Tampa Bay area, but also across the state and around the world, says United States Fencing Coaches Association President Arnold Mercado.

Since the inception of the Sunshine State Games 25 years ago, Campoli has been the volunteer director of the fencing category.

Next year, the Veterans World Championship _ a fencing competition for ages 60 and up _ will be held in Tampa. At least 300 competitors from 31 countries are expected. Campoli will run the event.

"He's literally the grandfather of fencing down here," Alexander says.

Of course, having so much experience in fencing has a downside, too.

"My problem now is that my reactions have slowed down," Campoli says. "It's such a fast sport, you have to be fast."

But Maestro Campoli would no more lay down his saber than he would quit teaching.

"I just love the sport," he says. "And people have got to be exposed to it."

Times researchers Caryn Baird, Kitty Bennett and Mary Mellstrom contributed to this story. Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at (727) 771-4303 or cshoichetsptimes.com.

Jim Campoli, 78, instructs Joe Lunder, 15, and Mike Duvall, 16, as they fence in Dunedin. Campoli teaches classes in Dunedin, St. Petersburg, Gulfport and Tampa. "He really makes us work at it until we get it right," Lunder said.

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