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Going medieval: Slashing stereotypes about women in armored combat

Sandra Lagnese, a 2002 Perham High School graduate, makes some of her own armor for competition. In the American Armored Combat League, there are specific rules for how her armor needs to be made to protect against the blunted-steel weapons. Submitted photo1 / 2
Sandra's interest in things medieval started out an early age... This interest grew to enjoy archery and the sport of medieval combat.” Submitted photo2 / 2

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in an ongoing series of stories on Perham High School graduates who now live out of the area and are involved in unique and interesting things.

In today’s world of rapidly changing technology, remarkable medical advancements, and modern miracles that seem to make the impossible, possible, sometimes Sandra Lagnese just wants to go medieval and hit something with a sword.

“My interest in things medieval and middle ages started from a young age,” said the Perham High School 2002 graduate in a recent interview. “Mostly it started out as an interest in the arts and recreating clothing or costumes from those eras with my own hands. This interest grew to enjoy archery and the sport of medieval combat.”

That’s right. Combat.

On March 29, Sandra (formerly Silbernagel) will compete at the American Armored Combat League’s National Tournament in Springfield, Ill.

One of Sandra’s friends made it onto the American Armored Combat League team in 2012. At that time, the competition was only for men.

But now, in the 2013-2014 season, similar fighting categories have been added for women.

Sandra knew right away that she wanted to give it a try.

“I jumped in feet first,” she said. “The idea of being a first-year woman fighting for full-contact steel combat and competing for the chance to be able to represent my country at the international competition is just too special of an opportunity to let pass by.”

A veteran of the United States Army and the National Guard, Sandra explained: “I love my country … and find it unfortunate I was just a little too early to be able to be among the first women to be in combat arms roles that were once restricted to men. Being able to try out, and possibly making Team USA, would be my way of fulfilling that can-do attitude and proudly representing my country abroad… this time in a different uniform.”

That uniform includes specially-made metal armor and blunted steel weapons such as longswords and battle axes.

Sandra gets most of her armor custom-made by armorers, or she makes it herself at a friend’s shop.

“One thing that women run into is that you cannot just buy armor off the shelf, since it will most likely be too big and not fit,” she said.

Combat rules require specific thicknesses for the metal used, and stipulate how the armor can or cannot be put together.

“I also have to document all the armor I wear,” Sandra said. All of the inspiration pieces must have been made within a 50-year timespan. Her current kit is based on a French brass funeral effigy from 1360 AD.

When dueling, Sandra prefers using a longsword because of “the energy and movement” involved. But, when it comes to the melee competitions, she reaches for a mace or battle ax.

Her training routine involves sword technique practice, jeet kune do, kali and historic European martial arts.

Sandra’s first armored combat competition was in Springfield, Ill. last October. If all goes well at the national tournament later this month, she may have the chance to go on to Belmonte, Spain in May for the International Medieval Combat Federation World Championship.

Despite her obvious fondness for history, Sandra also has a passion for the latest science and technology.

After high school, she enlisted in the Army as a 35F, or intelligence analyst. She completed basic training in South Carolina, and then was stationed in South Korea and Virginia. After completing her active duty obligation, she went into the National Guard until 2011.

“I chose my job in the intelligence field because of my love for science and research that was instilled in me between two great science teachers: Mrs. Schwarz and the late Mrs. Rennicke,” said Sandra.

She remembered being involved with Rennicke’s “Eyes on Wildlife” program, and being one of the first students in the science research club introduced by Schwarz.

Sandra’s passion for science led her to take a job at Engineering and Professional Services Corporation, a government contractor, as a satellite communications instructor while majoring in intelligence operations through Cochise College.

As an instructor for the company, Sandra travels to military bases to teach soldiers how to operate their equipment “from the ground up.”

“It is a rewarding job that allows me to still make a contribution to the armed forces and my country,” Sandra said. “Since then I’ve traveled more than I could have ever imagined. I remember looking back to when I was filled with awe and wonder from something as simple as a fieldtrip to a big city like Minneapolis. I knew I wanted to travel the world and see what I could discover with my own eyes.”

Sandra is the daughter of Lawrence and Lois Wiire, of Perham. She is currently raising funds to help cover her American Armored Combat League membership fees, armor and travel expenses at 33ptzs.