In our hands is a foam sword. On our head is a catcher’s helmet. We sweat buckets. Our clutch is slick on the sword’s grip. Across from us, our opponent is a twelve-year-old named Sam. Sam is handicapped by an ACL injury from a bicycle incident. He looks intense. And currently, he’s beating the snot out of us. This is training. We’re only six days away from suiting up in chainmail, brandishing a real steel sword and fighting a knight.
I’ll need a lot more training.
Welcome to Surge’s Medieval Warrior Challenge. We went into Chivalry Sports Academy (CSA) at X Gym Sports Mall in Myrtle Beach to train in western martial arts (the art of sword fighting and such). Then we challenged one of the academy’s best warriors to combat in its version of fight club – Friday Knight Fights, where warriors come together to battle with full medieval regalia; armor, shields, steel swords and all.
This is the first in a series where we explore, first-hand, how adults along the Grand Strand continue to enjoy the fantasy of being their own action stars or villains.
Yeah, a journalist against a knight, there’s no way we could lose...
Training Stage 1: Out here in the fields
CSA, which opened last August, is tucked in the back corner of X Gym, formerly the spot for C4W Explosive Wrestling, inside the massive former warehouse facility. There’s a glass case, housing all types of medieval weapons. There’s a makeshift indoor archery range. There are racks, holding foam and polyurethane swords. There are two squared-off areas, known as fields – one for training, one for battling.
X Gym has no central air conditioner, just a couple of fans blowing. Below us, a pool of sweat collects on the field as we begin our first day of training. Our trainer is Lord Karl Strohminger, owner, operator and archduke at CSA.
Strohminger was a Baltimore cop for 11 years, retired after being injured in the line of duty. After that, he received his Ph.D. in organizational psychology and worked in organizational behavioral dynamics for non-profits such as the Boy Scouts of America. He helped develop the Scouting for Youth with Disabilities program used by the Boy Scouts.
“I feel I've made enormous contributions to several organizations,” says Strohminger. “CSA is my semi-retirement gift to myself, a lifetime dream come true.” Then, Strohminger tells us to hold in our elbows during our high guard pose so we don’t get them hacked off.
CSA teaches three disciplines – archery, fencing and Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), which are the arts of swords, shields and armor. Strohminger has practiced HEMA for 30 years, since he was 19 years-old. After having kids he drifted away from the sport, but it was his kids that brought him back. After telling them stories about HEMA, he took them to a medieval sporting event, and the whole family has become engaged in the subculture.
“I decided to open CSA a year ago after I stopped winning every tournament I entered,” says Strohminger. “I’d won 44 major tournament titles between 2009 and 2012, but age has pulled the curtain on that show sadly. When I slowed down and started losing, I knew it was time to pass the torch and start instructing.”
CSA has between 15 and 20 students, 12 of them come for HEMA. The students range in ages from 12 to 51-years-old. He’ll teach HEMA to kids as young as six and archery to kids as young as four.
Usually, a student at CSA would start with the long sword and work into more advanced weapons such as quarterstaff, mace, scimitar, great sword and flail. But we have a week before combat, so we dive in and learn what we can as we go.
“There are three things you need in HEMA…speed, foot work and weapon skills,” says Strohminger. “I can teach you foot work and the skills. Either you have the speed or you don’t.”
“That’s a shame,” says Strohminger. “Because your second best defense is: don’t be there when they strike.”
We train with polyurethane swords known as wasters. We learn a series of blocks and the 10 strikes. We swing the waster tight and controlled to the right, to the left, swiping up and down, across an invisible opponent’s legs, across his head. We do these moves with a trainer, counting off the strikes. The moves get faster and faster. Our wasters connect with more precision. Each of us make the same move, cancel each other out, and when these moves are put into practice, they look like a dance.
“We do this to warm up,” says Strohminger. “We call it our cardio routine.”
The training is a good workout. And it’s cool if you want to live out your medieval fantasies or if you just really dig “Game of Thrones.” But Strohminger believes it’s more than that. “This type of training teaches you humility, courage, tenacity, duty and integrity,” he says.
Training Stage 2: Ye Olde Rankings
Strohminger runs CSA by his own rules. “Some people who teach HEMA are opposed to ranking a student’s progress,” he says. “But because students have a certain expectation when training in martial arts, we do have a rankings system.”
The beginner ranks are yeoman, squire and knight. They must master what’s known as a hand-and-a-half sword (the sword’s handle is the size of one hand and half of another). They must also become proficient in the bow and arrow.
The intermediate ranks are baron, earl and count. Here, they learn long sword and shield, quarterstaff and two-handed sword. They also learn how to use non-sword weapons including the axe, the flail (a short staff with an attached head used to swing at opponents) and the mace (a club with a heavy head on one end).
The advanced ranks are viscount, duke and archduke. All the weapons are represented on these levels. But on the top levels, all the soft stuff is left behind, and you must train with combat-ready steel.
“As with traditional martial arts, by the time a student is in the upper stages, they are teaching as much as learning,” says Strohminger.
But you don’t need to rise to these ranks to strap on combat-ready steel. “That’s mostly an issue of money,” says Strohminger. “I don’t recommend just anyone buying armor and a sword and hopping on a field to fight, because they might get hurt. But anyone who sinks the money into a kit can fight with or without training.”
You will drop about $700 on a low-end kit of full-on armor and steel. A high-end 16th century gothic suit with plate maille, two swords and a shield will cost you about $2,500. “There's a lot of used gear on eBay though,” says Strohminger. “I always recommend beginners try that route first. Any equipment used must meet a fairly rigorous set of safety standards.”
But you don’t need to go all-in on combat-ready steel to get into HEMA. Strohminger tells us there are plenty of his students who are more than satisfied battling it out with soft swords. “You can experience the sport for as little as $200 a year, if they just did it once a month or so,” he says. “A committed student, attending a class or two a week, with proper gear, could expect to spend under $1,000 in a year.”
The prices start at $10 for a single lesson and $30 for a personal lesson. Or you can go with the unlimited monthly access for $60 in the summer months and $80 in off-season months. The reduced price for summer is evidently because of the head-swooning swelter that hangs in the X Gym while we guzzle water between workouts.
Training Stage 3: Fair Dames Welcome
And it’s not just a bunch of dudes getting together to bash out their aggression once a week either. Strohminger’s star pupil is his 33-year-old daughter, Dame Andrea King. She is a Baroness, and she’s one of a few other females who have taken up the sword at CSA.
King and another female student, Dame Brianna Bailey, demonstrate the art of soft shield and flail battle. This is one of the popular weapon choices for Friday Knight Fights. The two bang away at each other with flails. And though they’re called soft, when one of these pieces of PVC pipe wrapped in foam hit you with authority – you know you’re hit.
King schools us on the art of the bow and arrow, and it’s obvious, we’re in a pre-K level. Our arrows sink into the wall above the target or shank off of the bow altogether. She tells us to only use two fingers when we draw the bowstring. She tells us to draw it to our lip, to not think about aiming at this distance. She tells us to “relax.”
We try to change the subject by asking King why she does this. Why she wants to brandish a weapon and beat the hell out of people when she could be out enjoying the nightlife on a Friday night? And she says, “I like the violence, and I’m extremely competitive.”
Strohminger later tells us that King is a “star karaoke singer and a master shop-a-holic,” when she’s not manning her position as director of operations for Ark Productions, the parent company of CSA.
CSA also does birthday parties for kids and has a traveling program called Medieval Madness, which puts on shows for resorts and schools. The company also catesr medieval-themed dinner parties, corporate team-building events and youth group events. There is also a retail line of feast-ware, swords and T-shirts. And, they’re developing plans for a Renaissance Festival on the Grand Strand.
Recently, King and another student of CSA, Sir Casy Stelk, 27, won a televised tournament in Alabama for an upcoming episode of “Mud Loving Rednecks” on the Animal Planet channel. They brought home the crown of King and Queen of Mudevil Times. King actually beat Stelk in the final fight to take first place, making her Queen King.
King’s passion for the sport is obvious as she sticks one arrow after another in the target. It’s equally as obvious that archery isn’t our warrior’s path. Which is a shame, because we were really looking forward to shooting the crossbow in that glass case, but with our poor display of aim and patience, alas we cannot be trusted around projectiles.
“Don’t feel bad, archery takes a lot of time,” says King. “I used to come in here and shoot for hours.”
But we don’t have hours. We’re not Katniss Everdeen, and this is no “Hunger Games.” I am a warrior in training, and I’ve only got five days left before the fight.
Training Stage 4: The Face Off
When Strohminger introduces us to our opponent for Friday Knight Fights he’s sparring with another student with a waster. His name is the aforementioned Stelk and it’s apparent early on that he’s skilled with the sword. He dances around the training square like a boxer. And he’s fast.
But Stelk is a nice guy. Always smiling, even as he stacks armors like firewood into our outstretched arms to demonstrate how heavy it will be on fight night. His armor weighs approximately 60 pounds. Our armor weighs roughly 80 pounds.
Stelk is a senior knight at Medieval Times’ Myrtle Beach castle, which is a stone’s throw from the X-Gym, serving the lords of the Grand Strand for the last seven years. He’s risen to the rank of knight at CSA since signing on last November.
“Before Medieval Times, I worked in the electronics department at Walmart. I was bored to death,” says Stelk. “I wanted to do what I loved, and on my 21st birthday, I got hired at Medieval Times.”
As the armor sags in our arms, Stelk describes how he’d had some sort of weapon in his hands since her was five, a stick in the shape of a sword.
“The weapons just kept getting bigger and more advanced, but instead of my parents discouraging me, they pushed me to follow my passions,” says Stelk. “When I was 10, they took me to a renaissance faire. I saw knights in armor and swords, and I was hooked. By the time I was filling out my application for Medieval Times, it was like I was filling out a “Dungeons and Dragons’” character sheet…sword, check…daggers, check…mace, check.”
When Stelk first saw an advertisement for CSA, he thought, “Oh no, another place that thinks they know how to handle a sword,” says Stelk. “Then I watched Lord Karl [Strohminger] instructing on the art of the long sword, and I was in.”
Alex Grant, the guy Stelk is sparring with, works at Legends in Concert by day, but at night, he’s a knight. Back in January, Grant came into CSA with Stelk. He did a crash course. “They beat me up good, and I was hooked.”
He had done kickboxing and MMA (mixed martial arts) in the past. “But I love medieval movies and gladiators. I love the books, ‘The Iliad’ and ‘The Odyssey,’ the movies, ‘Troy’ and ‘Gladiator.’ All this is an extension of that for me,” says Grant. “Besides, what lady doesn’t like a knight in shining armor?”
For the first two or three months of training, Grant lost a lot of fights. “Casy [Stelk] destroyed me at first. But I’ve put on 15 pounds of muscle since,” says Grant. “And you have to constantly move and be fast to survive. Now, I can go toe-to-toe.”
There seems to always be a smiling competitive tone in the still air of CSA. And all the students appear to push and encourage one another both on and off the battlefield.
“It keeps you in shape, keeps you out of trouble and you learn things as you go,” says Grant. “To rise in rank, I had to know the skills, but I also had to learn the history and write a one page bio or give a presentation about historical figures or knights.”
As we talk, the sweat pours off us, and we ask if the lack of air conditioning ever gets to him. “Fighting in these conditions gets us prepared for fighting in tournaments when you have to fight outside,” Grant says as wipes the sweat from his face. “You get used to it, and the other seasons are great in here.”
Grant spends every spare moment training, learning more, trying to rise further in the ranks. “This is going to sound cocky as shit,” says Grant. “But there’s no better feeling than standing face-to-face with an opponent and proving I’m better.”
Training Stage 5: Talking About Fight Clubs
There are fight clubs like the one in Myrtle Beach all over the country. But the HEMA subculture can play by so many different rules. “It's so varied. Some just do soft sword, some only combat- ready steel. Some use wooden swords (rattan), like sticks,” says Strohminger. “Most groups think if you don't do HEMA their way, you’re doing it wrong. My philosophy is different. I’m anxious to learn new traditions. It makes me a better fighter, and getting beat is by far the best education.”
A few weeks ago, a couple of guys came from another fight club to challenge CSA’s fighters. “I won’t mention the name of the fight club, but they fought with different rules than us,” says Strohminger. “I fought one of them and disarmed him. I think it embarrassed them a little, because when I fought the other guy, he aimed at unarmed areas of my legs. We were fighting with wasters (polyurethane swords), and it left some pretty huge bruises.”
In South Carolina, there are five other major groups doing similar practices to CSA. There’s Eastwind Castle in Trenton. There’s Adria Lancaster in Lancaster. There’s Sword Carolina in Greenville. There’s the Knightly Order of the Fiat Lux (KOFL), which Strohminger started and remains affiliated. KOFL is based in Charlotte, N.C. but branches into nine other states, including South Carolina. All of these clubs fight with combat-ready steel, archery and soft sword. There’s also Albion, a soft sword only fight club located in Columbia.
“This sport is much bigger in the North and is only starting its toehold here,” says Strohminger. “We compete heavily and have great relationships with all five of the South Carolina groups, especially Eastwind and KOFL. We also attend events elsewhere. We could compete weekly if we wanted to, and weren't adverse to driving six to 15 hours.”
They battle mostly for bragging rights. Occasionally, trophies and awards are involved. And although Strohminger and his crew are extremely competitive, he seems to be in it for a higher mission.
“I started KOFL on my back porch with five friends in January 2005. Today, we have over 130 members in nine states, coast to coast, and make annual charitable contributions of over $50,000,” he says. “Basically, we’re the Knights of Columbus meets the Renaissance Faire. Yes, we engage in medieval and western martial arts, but our real focus is brotherhood development through good works and service to mankind.”
All this talk of servicing mankind is fine and good. But go-time is approaching, and we have to get our game face on.
Zero Hour: Fight Knight
We arrive early for Friday Knight Fights. It takes time to strap on tenth century armor. It’s made of leather and steel. Under it all, we wear chainmail. The chainmail resembles a short dress…a short dress that weighs 40 pounds.
Grant serves as our squire. As Grant laces up our leg guards, pulling the leather straps around our thighs, he says, “At least you could’ve bought me dinner first.”
“We call Friday Knight Fights, movie and a muster,” says Strohminger. “X Gym clears out on Friday nights, so it’s mostly ours. We’ll throw on a movie, something with a lot of sword fighting or ‘Monty Python’s Holy Grail.’ If you’re over 21, you can pack a cooler and drink a beer or two.”
With each layer of armor, the heat traps itself against our body. We begin to feel a bit claustrophobic, even before we get the helmet on. The weight is distributed, but gravity is undisputable now, pulling us down. When the helmet gets screwed down on our head and strapped on, we feel protected, but we swoon from the heat.
Strohminger puts two long swords in our gauntlets and asks us to choose. We choose the lightest. The swords have been dimed down, rounded to blunt edges. We select the largest shield – a converted police riot shield. Through the hundreds of tiny holes in our helmet, we can see Stelk across the field. He seems to move without much trouble.
After our bindings are tightened, Strohminger asks us to do a few jumping jacks to make sure everything is secure. We do with difficulty. Strohminger takes our sword and slaps at our armor – our shoulders, legs, arms, chest, gut, back. He’s tempering us for battle. Then he backs up and kicks us full force in the chest. We stagger back a few steps. All of this fires us up.
Grant asks, “You ready?” All we can do is nod and smile like a maniac.
There are 25 people in attendance, and 15 of them came to fight. Everyone surrounds the 20-by-20 battlefield to watch. The rules are simple. We fight until someone reaches seven points. A hit to the arm or leg is worth one point. A hit to the head is worth two points. A hit to the torso or the back is worth three points.
There should be no intentional hits to the face, hands or feet. “We can set broken bones,” says Strohminger. “But these parts of the body have too many delicate pieces for us to fix.”
It’s not like CSA has been injury-free. Grant told us a few days early about King getting knocked unconscious, suffering a concussion and needing a couple of butterfly stitches.
“I had my thumb jammed up into my hand. Dame Andrea [King] had to snatch it out and reset it. I line judged the rest of the night,” Stelk had told us before he was staring us down behind that helmet across the battlefield.
Stelk also told us a few days ago that, “Medieval Times knows Friday is my day off so I can fight at Friday Knight Fights.”
After we’re introduced to the crowd, after we bow to our opponent, after Strohminger yells, “Fight on!” we wish Stelk would’ve got called into work because it doesn’t take long for him to go to work on us. In seconds flat, we feel clunk on our head, and Strohminger yells, “Hold!”
Stelk has drawn first blood – a head shot, two points. Now we’re pissed. Strohminger yells, “Fight on,” and into the breach we dive headlong. We slam our shields together. Our swords swing and connect. His sword finds our arm.
A limb hit earns him another point, three in total. We sit firmly at zero.
Our leg guards begin to droop, and Grant heaves them up. Strohminger yells, “Fight on,” and we think there’s not enough corner time in this sport. We thrash about and attempt to make a slice at any part of Stelk’s body, but he’s so fucking fast. A sharp ding echoes inside our helmet from another head shot.
Stelk – five. Surge Warrior – zero.
We’re barely out of our corner before he scores a leg shot. “Son-of-a-bitch,” we scream into the chamber of our helmet.
In our corner, Grant says, “Keep your foot behind your shield, keep your shield high, and stand up straight. You’re letting him know where you’re going, and you’re giving him too much to hit.”
That’s was sage advice to give us when we’re one strike away from losing. But we listen. We stalk into the center of the field. We shove Stelk’s shield with ours, plunge our sword around the shields and strike his torso. Strohminger says, “Hold.”
We hear the crowd clap for us, for the first time. Strohminger says, “Good job, you saved yourself from being skunked.”
Back into the fray we go, and again I slam my shield into Stelk’s. But this time, Stelk slides to the side and his sword finds my back in a thump for the match point.
We meet in the center of the field to shake hands, take a short water break, and then, Stohminger announces that we will fight a 30 second free-for-all battle – no points. We toss aside the riot shield and pick up a small, round punch shield instead. Grant says, “The trick is just keep coming forward, punch with both shield and sword hands.”
That’s just what we do. It’s a real brawl. And we’re not winning. Stelk’s sword connects with our head four times in a clink-clank-clink-clank pattern. Our head lobs. We have to remind ourselves to breath – in through the nose, out through the mouth. We push him back. Our mouth is as dry as elk bone in winter. Stelk backs away, circles his prey, raises his sword into high guard. Thirty seconds have come and gone. We fight for the crowd now.
We drop into low guard, something we learned our first day of training. Low guard is used to goad the opponent, to draw him in. We’re playing coy. It costs us. With one swipe and twist, Stelk wrenches our sword free from our hands, disarms us.
When Stohminger asks Stelk if he will show honor and allow us to pick up the sword, or if he wishes to finish us, Stelk says, “Pick it up.”
We do pick it up, but we yield the match, giving up our sword and shield for a bottle of water.
The action out on the taped square, swinging quarterstaffs and axes, men and women, boys and girls, it’s a real life video game. These moments are obviously cathartic for them – “Mortal Kombat” and “Street Fighter” and “Dungeons and Dragons” come to life.
We didn’t win. And yeah, we definitely felt it the next day. But it was still worth it.