By Andrew Santella
(Published as Taking a Stab)
Details, March 1997
The single clearest memory of my years as a high-school fencer is
of a teammate reading The Federalist in the locker room before a
tournament. We were Melvins among the jocks. If the wrestlers primed
themselves for matches by cranking Zeppelin, fencers turned off
the music and opened Alexander Hamilton.
Of course, the very qualities that made fencing a geek magnet in
my scholastic days end up appealing to certain discerning adult
athletes. Fencing favors mental and physical agility over brute
strength, tradition and history over the transient, manners over
trash talk. In short, its never going to be a very popular
sport. But it does and always will feel right to athletes who like
to think for themselves.
To love fencing, it helps to be a little contrary. This is a sport
that has been around for three thousand years and has never been
in style. Aerobics has been hot. Mountain biking has been hot. Even
Fencing, meanwhile, has endured, like Faulkners folk, stubbornly.
A carving from twelfth-century-B.C. Egypt shows two fencers bouting.
The inscription has one of the two fencers proclaiming lamely, "On
guard and admire what my valiant hand shall do." Even from
across the millennia, one can hear the bystanders sniggering. Thing
is, if they would stop sniggering for a second, theyd see
just what that valiant hand can do, and with what grace.
Fencing propagandists sometimes refer to the sport as physical chess,
a description that I always thought did fencers an injustice, because
the emphasis is on the second word. True, fencers do have to think
fast and think ahead. But so do boxers, basketball players and tennis
players. No mere geometry whiz could win at Wimbledon without a
wicked serve, for starters.
Likewise, in fencing, anticipating your opponents attack is
only preliminary to actually doing something about it. Thats
where the speed and power come in, and thats where things
get thrilling. Take away the smart salutes, the crisp knickers,
and the fussy French vocabulary, and youre still left with
the basic, electrifying stuff of sport: prudence and daring and
reflexes employed in the cause of self-preservation. The problem,
though, is that this sport is not always easy to get at first encounter.
One of the first things youll learn in a less on the en garde
Your feet will be splayed beneath you, and your nonweapon arm suspended
limply over your head. Youwill resemble an effeminate stork. Some
beginners, unfortunately, never get any further. "Americans
want to see success, we want to look cool," says Andy Shaw,
who runs the West Side Fencing Center in Los Angeles. "You
wont necessarily look cool." At least not right away.
But if you stick with it, youll quickly experience the heady
rush of jabbing at a fellow human. Unlike the old-style European
masters, who used to drill their charges on precision footwork for
months before they even let them hold a foil, coaches today are
more likely to encourage freestyle athleticism. This new approach
might be less likely to produce waves of disciplined Olympians,
but it is certainly more suited to the casual fencer who wants to
learn and enjoy himself a little.
My high-school fencing coach was no Prussian taskmaster, but he
knew the value of footwork drills. We all groaned when we were drilled
in advance-lunge-recover -retreat repetitions. Yet mastering this
combination is fundamental to success in fencing--just as prowess
in basketball begins with learning to dribble. The advance is a
step forward from the en garde position; the lunge a powerful thrust
a yard or so ahead, weapon arm extended and power coming from the
back leg. The recovery is a quick scramble back to the en garde
position; and the retreat a swift slide back a step. Besides being
key to fencing skills, these drills also whipped our squad into
solid shape. My guess is that if everyone did a hundred or so of
these reps now and then wed find ourselves living in a society
of aerobically fit, iron-thighed superbeings.
But of course the thrill of fencing is not in the cals but in the
combat. Fencers choose from three weapons. The foil, descendant
of seventeenth-century training swords, is a light weapon with a
quadrangular, tapering blade. The épée, originally
a dueling weapon, is heavier and has a stiffer, triangular blade.
In foil and épée, points, or touches, are registered
with the blunted tip of the weapons, though the target areas for
each differ. Foil fencers aim for the torso, front or back. In épée,
the target area includes the entire body.
Fencers typically begin training with the foil; some taller fencers
take to épée, because its rules are supposed to favor
a longer reach. The sabre, on the other hand, is the reputed weapon
of choice for some gonzo fencers. The modern version of the slashing
cavalry weapon, the sabre has a target area that extends from the
hip up, including the head. Touches are registered not just with
the tip, but with the side of the blade as well. Sabre bouts are
notorious for headlong rushes and sweeping cuts to the torso and
head. My one foray into sabre fencing, ill-equipped in a too-small
mask, left me with welts on my neck and a thinly concealed fear
of the weapon.
Competitive fencings roots in nineteenth-century Europe have
endowed it with an elitist reputation against which todays
clubs continue to struggle. In fact, fencing is a relatively affordable
and accessible sport. Most clubs will supply beginners with the
equipment they need for their first lesson. Elite athletes and beginners
mix to a degree rarely found in other sports. Its not that
unusual to find beginners working out on the next strip over from
an international medalist.
My experience in sabre notwithstanding, the sport is about as risk-free
as any athletic pursuit can be. If youre in good shape and
if you stretch beforehand, you should have no problem. All you need
for starters are some sweats, a pair of gym shoes, and the will
to try something the rest of the world isnt doing. Leave The
Federalist at home.