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Swords in hand, an American team is in Europe for a medieval combat competition

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Two medieval armored combat world championships are happening this weekend in Europe. You know, if they need theme music, B.J. Leiderman writes ours. Hundreds of people are fighting in full armor with swords, shields and other implements of historical mayhem. Among those competing are several members of a team from Colorado, the Wardens. Shanna Lewis with member station KRCC in Colorado Springs has this report on their training and preparations.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWORDS STRIKING)

SHANNA LEWIS, BYLINE: The sound of sword strikes echoes through the towering pine trees in Black Forest, just north of Colorado Springs. This is not choreographed reenactment or costumed performance. It's the real thing, though the weapons are not sharp.

JEFF LEXA: Just got beaten to the ground and threw some people around. I just - I loved it. I couldn't wipe a smile off my face no matter what happened to me.

LEWIS: That's Colorado Warden Jeff Lexa talking about the first time he fought in armor.

LEXA: We're doing this for sport, as they did back then. That's the historical route of this, to replicate combat but not to actually kill each other.

LEWIS: Lexa says his armor - called a kit - is based on a style from the early 16th century and weighs close to 100 pounds. He uses it when he competes in team melees. That's when as many as 300 armored combatants take the field to battle it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWORDS STRIKING)

LEWIS: There are also one-on-one duels, a specialty for national champion Shoshana Shellens. Her black and steel gray kit weighs about 45 pounds, which she says allows for better mobility and visibility.

SHOSHANA SHELLENS: Everything fits into the bag a bit like "Tetris." I'm removing my greaves, which are the shin protection, and my cuisses, which are the thigh and knee protection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARMOR CLANKING)

SHELLENS: These are made of steel, while my brigandine chest armor is actually made with titanium. My helmet is a German clap visor.

LEWIS: There is also some modern gel padding that goes under some of that armor.

SHELLENS: This keeps the armor from abusing me when the armor is hit against me.

LEWIS: The kit has to meet authenticity standards for competition set by governing bodies. Most of them buy their gear from professional armorers. It can cost around $2,000. And that's just a starting point.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC TOOL WHIRRING)

LEWIS: But some, like Ian Webb, prefer to make part or all of their kits themselves.

IAN WEBB: Because I'm a big guy, I recognize that I'm going to be a very large target. So I wanted a kit that's going to protect me in any case, whatsoever.

LEWIS: At 6-foot-7, 300 pounds, Webb often fights using a poleaxe, which is a long-shafted staff topped with an axe head. He and others practice using a stationary target called a pel, in this case, a stack of tires.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUDDING AGAINST TIRES)

LEWIS: Webb and fellow Warden Travis Chuning describe what it's like inside a suit of armor during a melee.

WEBB: It's all really muffled. You're hearing (vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF THUDDING AGAINST TIRES)

WEBB: You hear your own heartbeat, feel your own breath. You're just so focused on what you're doing, the pains that you feel when somebody strikes you, the exhaustion in your lungs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWORDS STRIKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's so much lighter.

TRAVIS CHUNING: You're breathing in the smell of the dirt, the sweat. And, like, you have all the metal and leather in your nose. All you hear these other dudes clanking around you. You get this huge rush of excitement and happiness and, like, adrenaline.

LEWIS: Chuning calls it armored mixed martial arts.

CHUNING: I do the nerdiest version of MMA that you could possibly imagine, and it's awesome.

LEWIS: It is a sport that combines nerd and jock. Some people come to it because they grew up fighting imaginary dragons with broomsticks, swords, and trash can lids for shields or because they're interested in history, or it keeps them fit and strong. Members of the Colorado Wardens say what keeps them going is the camaraderie and support they share with each other. Shellens is competing in the women's sword and shield events in Europe this week, while Webb and Lexa qualified to join other U.S. fighters in various team melees. For NPR News, I'm Shanna Lewis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Shanna Lewis
Shanna Lewis’ work as an independent radio producer and journalist has aired on NPR’s newscast and news magazines, Voice of America, Prime Time Radio and Pulse of the Planet, among others. Freelance print and photography work by Shanna has been featured in The Denver Post, The National Post (Canada), High Country News and other publications. She is the recipient of a Colorado AP (Associated Press) Broadcast award, garnered seven Colorado Press Association awards for reporting and photography and contributed to a number of award winning broadcast, online and multimedia projects.