Confessions of a
High-School Fencer

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, it’s 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 rock climbing.

Fencing, meanwhile, has endured, like Faulkner’s 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, they’d 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 opponent’s attack is only preliminary to actually doing something about it. That’s where the speed and power come in, and that’s where things get thrilling. Take away the smart salutes, the crisp knickers, and the fussy French vocabulary, and you’re 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 you’ll learn in a less on the en garde stance.

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 won’t necessarily look cool." At least not right away. But if you stick with it, you’ll 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 we’d 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 fencing’s roots in nineteenth-century Europe have endowed it with an elitist reputation against which today’s 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. It’s 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 you’re 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 isn’t doing. Leave The Federalist at home.