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More than a club: The lifestyle behind foam weapon fighting

The name Niflheim may not mean much to most students, but for members of the Foam Weapon Fighting Club, it is who they are and it represents all that the club is.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica and Norse Mythology, Niflheim is the cold, dark, misty world of the dead. In some accounts, it was the last of the nine worlds, a place into which evil men passed after reaching the region of death.

“We don’t think of ourselves as the Foam Weapon Fighting Club, we think of ourselves as Niflheim and we want people to recognize us that way,” said Cameron Wintersteen, the vice president of the club.

For many members, the club has become more than just a place to fight: it has become a home and a community.

“The fighting itself is a lot of fun; it’s why we do this — for the fighting, but the secondary benefits are really fantastic. It gives us a chance to have an athletic outlet and a stress release, which are really important in college, especially for the community that we are a part of. The people who do this are typically individuals who are not athletic, and … it’s an athletic outlet for those who are more interested in intellectual pursuits,” Wintersteen said.

The Niflheim name is also how the group is recognized within the sport, which is a kind of foam weapon fighting commonly called Belegarth.

“We compete with groups in … a larger national group [called the] Belegarth Medieval Combat Society,” said Anthony Boersma, the group’s faculty advisor.

The Belegarth Medieval Combat Society is a worldwide organization made up of many smaller realms, or groups like the one on Concordia’s campus, although the realms are not restricted to only college students.

The Belegarth website states that its membership consists of an eclectic group of students, professionals and families.

According to Wintersteen, Belegarth spreads beyond Cobber society.

“Belegarth itself is a very widespread sport. It … is spread throughout the United States, Canada, South America and a little bit in Europe. It’s really all over the place,” Wintersteen said.

All of the realms are welcome to participate in most of the larger events and tournaments that are put on throughout the year, although some of the smaller events are only open to local realms.

Back in September, Niflheim hosted a novice tournament — a smaller event created to give new members their first chance at fighting against others in a tournament style fight. According to Wintersteen, this was the first time that such a tournament has been held on Concordia’s campus.

Novice tournaments welcome freshmen and newcomers alike to the sport, and the greater community that encompasses the sport.

“It really is a fantastic culture,” Wintersteen said. “I’ve seen so much acceptance out of [foam weapon fighting], not just in our club itself, but in the wider community. It’s unique in that, for the most part, it’s individuals who have not found communities in anything else and need that acceptance for whatever reason.”

Beyond the novice tournament they hosted in September, Niflheim has two other major events that they attend.

“We have an event coming up in November in Duluth called Snowball and we are going up to that,” Boersma said. “We do that one every year. It’s a lot of realms from around the upper Midwest area and southern Canada, so we’ll probably get close to eighty or ninety people there.”

According to Wintersteen, the Snowball tournament is a great way to get involved in the local community of Duluth. The first half of the fighting occurs outside in the snow and the second takes place in an indoor gymnastics gym.

“It’s probably the most fun event we get to do every year,” Wintersteen said. “[The tournaments aren’t] about trying to be the best or win. Most of these events are not about winning. It’s about either learning or having fun or both.”

Many of the people in the sport foster this air of camaraderie, and it trickles down from the greater society into individual clubs.

“I’ve already seen the freshman going off and doing things together — people who hadn’t known each other before they started this,” Wintersteen said. “[They] are now friends, simply because they decided to try the sport. [They] are … totally ingrained not only in the activity, but in the culture.”

This culture is multiplied tenfold at the second off-campus event that Niflheim attends, Wolfpack. It occurs every February in Norma, Ill. According to Wintersteen, this event is far larger than Snowball, having 200 to 300 people showing up from as far away as the East Coast and the western Midwest.

“[Wolfpack] is an indoor event in which … there are big team fights. You’ve got two giant teams pitted against each other. Then there are … more broken up events where there are four teams or eight teams or, god forbid, 10 or 16,” Wintersteen said. “I’ve been there every year now and it’s a brilliant experience for any new fighters.”

During these events and practices, Niflheim uses weapons made out of colorful foam and various lengths of fiberglass according to Boersma.

“[Fighters use] all kinds of weapons. If you can make it, you can use it,” Boersma said. “A lot of [equipment] has been either purchased or made by members who just donate it to the club. Usually the leadership in the club holds on to it.”

The group sets aside a few practices a year for the sole purpose of crafting weapons for members, Wintersteen said.

Freshmen, Chelsea Steffes has already made her own sword.

“I have my own sword, but a lot of other weapons … belong to the club and we all … share them,” Steffes said. “We are also gradually making our own weapons as time goes by. [My favorite weapons are] polearm weapons, which would be a long stick one like a spear.”

According to Boersma, armor is also allowed and it gives the wearer another hit. The number of hits and where they land decide if a person “dies” or not. Many realms also dress up in era-specific garb to add to the ambiance of events, although this has no bearing on the number of hits a person can take.

“If you are hit on the arm, you essentially just lose that arm. But if you are hit in the torso, you’re dead. Any time you get hit in two limbs, you lose two limbs, and you’re dead from that. If you get hit on the leg, you lose your leg. If you are hit in the face, it doesn’t count because, of course, we want to really discourage people from hitting others in the face,” Boersma said.

There are other rules as well, many of which pertain to the construction of the foam weapons.

“There is a rule on how wide your blade has to be so that it can’t go into an eye socket. There’s a rule on how big the pommel on the bottom has to be. [A weapon] has to be soft enough. If it hits too hard you can’t use it. All weapons have to have a quarter or a washer of some sort capped on the end so the fiberglass doesn’t poke through the foam,” Boersma said.

Most of the rules are designed to keep members safe.

“[Belegarth has] three criteria for most rules: the first one is obviously safety. And then it’s playability, and historical significance, so to speak. We want to try to make it historic, but it is more important that it’s safe and playable. We don’t want anyone getting hurt, but yet we don’t want anyone to not have fun either,” Boersma said.

This idea of safety also extends past the point of physical well-being and into the broader culture of Niflheim and the sport.

“It’s a safe place for a lot of people,” Wintersteen said. “I’ve had a number of freshman talk to me about things that I think even their best friends don’t know, because … they had a problem or they were struggling and they needed to talk to someone. I don’t know where else I might find that.”

The tournaments themselves also have rules and procedures that need to be followed prior to actually competing. According to Boersma, one such procedure is weapons checking.

“When we [arrive at events], right away we have to go through weapons checking, where everybody’s weapons [are checked] to make sure they are safe,” Boersma said.

Then the first activity is a free-for-all fight as a warmup of sorts. After that there are group activities that pit realms against one another. Then the realms are divided into two giant groups and they fight one massive battle, oftentimes in a historical manner, according to Boersma.

“We do a lot of bridge battles. Obviously we don’t have a real bridge, but they’ll mark out what a bridge would be with cones and we’ll fight over that area in the middle,” Boersma said.

The last style of fighting is one-on-one tournaments or an activity called three-headed giant, wherein one person has a shield, one has a sword, and one has a spear and they fight as a unit against another group of three with the same equipment.

“At the end of the night, there is always Feast, which is basically just a big meal provided by the home group,” Boersma said.

According to Wintersteen, Niflheim is more commonly referred to as Foam Weapon Fighting Club on campus so that prospective members and other students outside the club can understand what the club is and immediately know what the club is about. The name Niflheim comes from Nordic themes as do the names of their officer positions and some of their fighter names.

“Instead of president we call [Quentin Markfort] jarl, instead of vice president I am housecarl and instead of treasurer, [Calder Solloway] is master of coin,” Wintersteen said. “On the field we are actually known by different names, simply to add to the kind of fantasy and roleplay aspects of our sport. It lends a certain level of knowledgeability and respect; if I hear that name, there is a certain level of power and gravitas to it.”

Originally, the Niflheim name belonged to the Fargo-Moorhead community group of fighters. Shortly after the campus group formed, the two groups merged due to common leadership. Today either name — Niflheim or Foam Weapon Fighting Club — works, according to Boersma who was one of the original members.

“In 2009, which was my sophomore year here at college, [the club] formed. There were five people. It used to be a part of gaming club, where every other week instead of having their gaming time, they would go and do foam weapon fighting, but since some people would only show up to gaming club to do that, they decided to make a separate group,” Boersma said.

Today Niflheim has far more members than the original five.

“In total we have, at any given practice, anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five members on the field at a time,” Wintersteen said.

For ease of organization, the club generally has three tiers of membership: core members, casual members, and satellite members. Core members are people who attend each and every practice. Casual members are those who attend on a more recreational basis. Satellite members are those who fight only a couple times a year, Wintersteen said.

“We have currently four veterans who show up regularly; the rest of the team [are first year fighters] who come back every single day. In fact, many of them have started organizing their own practices, outside of our [scheduled ones],” Wintersteen said.

Steffes joined the club to try something new and to have fun, and she attends every practice and many of the impromptu sparring sessions.

“It’s really fun. Plus, if you need to get some anger out, you can always just beat someone up [with foam weapons],” Steffes said.

The enthusiasm of the new fighters delights the whole group, although it has raised certain challenges for the veterans. According to Wintersteen, because of this energy, the leadership has had to learn how to deal with organizing such a large and excited group.

“In the past couple weeks, we actually had a big problem where people were coming out and fighting just about every day,” he said. “This … concerned us because we were worried that people wouldn’t be getting their homework done. We cut that back down to three practices a week.”

The club has two regularly scheduled practices: Wednesdays from 7 to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 2 to 5 p.m. There is an additional, unscheduled one for anytime members want to spar as a larger group.

According to Wintersteen, this amount of excitement is somewhat new. Last year, while initial interest was high with 40 people signing up at Cobber Expo and 20 people attending the first practice, the group ended up retaining only one core member and two casual ones.

“That’s completely unsustainable,” Wintersteen said, “I did the campus organization student leadership internship during the summer. I basically got a week and a half just to plan and prepare … for the coming year and figure out ways to do things differently.”

Wintersteen realized that retention of members all came down to the first few weeks and how new members were taught.

“For the most part, there is mentoring,” Boersma said. “We usually have some older members go through some drills at the beginning of practice.”

This year, while fewer people signed up at Cobber Expo and fewer people showed up on the first day of practice, Niflheim has not seen the same losses in membership.

“Of the people who showed up on that first day, we lost three, but gained about six more throughout the month,” Wintersteen said. “We haven’t lost anyone since that day. In terms of total numbers, we’ve actually grown during that month.”

While retention is no longer an issue, newcomers and veterans alike still face challenges of their own.

Steffes’ biggest challenge is the demanding athletic aspect of the foam weapons club.

“For me, my biggest challenge … is working on the athletic skill that actually goes into this because you do work up a sweat. You … have to keep practicing and not give up,” Steffes said.

Steffes has no plans of quitting and said that she is going to be in the group again next year.

With the increase in size of the group, many of the tasks that fall on the leadership’s shoulders — setting up squads, dealing with internal disputes, prepping internal squad events like crafting days, and making sure that they have spaces to fight in — have become increasingly challenging.

“In past years, we have been a very small family, but in many ways we have been like a family — we have fun together, we argue, we eat meals before and after our practices — and now we are a very big family and it is a completely different challenge,” Wintersteen said.

According to Wintersteen, these efforts are worthwhile. The ties that are being made in Niflheim are greater than just the group itself.

“We’re not just friends on the field. We say hello when we pass each other in the halls, we have long conversations. I spend my weekends with these [people]. [The camaraderie] of what we do and who we are is really important. Foam weapon fighting gave us that.”


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