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tom hawthorn

The swish of metal slicing air and the clang of swordplay echo on an otherwise quiet street.

In the backyard of a modest rancher, hidden behind hedges, protected from the sun and rain by a white canvas tarp, sword-wielding athletes perfect ancient skills on a homemade stage.

This is the backyard of Nan-Sang Ho, 76, a coach who has been the face of fencing in the British Columbia capital for decades. He built the rectangular fighting arena, known in fencing as a piste, after being bumped from recreational centres too often for more popular sports. He calls it his deck.

It was on this runway that he helped perfect the technique of Monica Peterson, 28, who will do battle in the foil at the Olympics in London on Saturday. She is one of five Canadian fencers at the Games. They stand en garde for thee.

Fencing remains a minor sport in this land. In Canada, we prefer to wear blades on our feet rather than wield them in our hand.

Mr. Ho has been Ms. Peterson's coach since she was 12, when she took up the sport by following older brother Mike Kwan. The coach has been with her so long he still addresses her as "Girl."

Her Olympic competition begins and ends on Saturday, as a knockout format will determine a gold medal winner by nightfall. Lose, and you're out.

It is an unforgiving format, tougher yet for an athlete who has scrimped and scraped to reach the pinnacle of her sport.

"She is limited, because I am limited," Mr. Ho said. "We are in Victoria, which, compared to other fencing centres, is like the wilderness. We have nothing. Everybody looks at me, depends on me."

For many years, the coach served as sparring partner, but now his knees ache and he has diabetes, so others do battle under his learned eye.

The coach, who has done much to sustain fencing in this far-off corner, came to the sport only through the bloody twists of 20th-century geopolitics.

Mr. Ho was born in 1936 at Changsha, the capital of Hunan province in China, an inauspicious place and time. The city is known today as the site of Mao's conversion to communism. ("My family is opposed to Mao," he said. "We are not Communist. We are mandarin class.") Mr. Ho's father, an army officer, was killed fighting the Japanese when the boy was 6. His childhood was one of fear and turmoil, as his family moved constantly to avoid the occupying force.

The boy joined the exodus to Taiwan after the Communist takeover in 1949. He studied at the National Taiwan University in Taipei before coming to Canada at age 27 to complete his doctorate in physics at the University of Toronto.

On campus, he met Imre Hennyey, an épéeist who had competed at two Olympics for his native Hungary before fleeing the country after the failed anti-Communist revolt of 1956. Mr. Ho learned Hungarian technique under the immigrant swordsman's tutelage.

"He likes me because I am a good fighter," said Mr. Ho, whose English is such that he often prefers to speak in the present tense. "I have what they call tempo. I have a feeling for timing and distance. Like a good boxer who can always beat the other guy to the punch."

Mr. Ho's own athletic career was limited by poor lung capacity caused by tuberculosis contracted as a boy. He took up coaching.

In Victoria, he has also taught swordplay to theatre groups for performances of Romeo and Juliet and The Three Musketeers.

Among his pupils, one always shined over the others. Eight years ago, he asked for a pledge and made a promise.

"At 20, I ask her, 'Do you want to commit? If you commit, I will train you all the way to the Olympics.' "

Eight years later, the coach has at long last made good on his promise. Ms. Peterson is a quicksilver foilist. At London, the Victoria-born athlete will exhibit a Hungarian technique taught by a Chinese immigrant. What could be more Canadian?