A Duel of Swords

Two warriors face each other; clad in white and masked in anonymity, they each brandish a sword, gripped tightly in their hand. Feet spread apart in a defensive stance, they wait, elegantly poised and ready to battle, with their weapons practically becoming a natural extension of their body.

“Fencers ready?” a referee asks. “Fence!”

And so the dangerous dance begins.  What starts out so peacefully soon turns into a clash of metal and colliding bodies.  When one attacks, thrusting their sword at their opponent’s body, the other makes a quick defensive action, deflecting the attacker’s blade in the nick of time. What looks like simple footwork is a critically important game of distance; each fencer wants to step close enough to their opponent to be able to attack and land a point, but not so close as to be lured in past the point where they could retreat fast enough to avoid getting hit. Back and forth they advance and retreat, attacking and defending, trying to land the tip of their blade on the right part of their opponent’s body to score a point and win. They lunge forward like their legs were spring loaded, thrusting their weapons out with precise aim.  The first person to land five touches will be the victor. After a few minutes of lightning fast actions, one fencer emerges as the winner, removing their mask and saluting their opponent.

Behind the metal mesh of their masks, you can barely make out facial expressions. Sometimes they are steely and unaffected; at other moments you can see every emotion, from frustration to surprise to anguish. With a game as physically and mentally taxing as this, it’s understandable to experience such a spectrum of feelings. This is fencing, an ancient game with a historic past that is filled with drama and excitement.

Every Wednesday and Friday, the UCI fencing club meets in the activity annex in the top floor of the ARC. A small group of beginners (and a few more advanced practitioners) come to practice an ancient sport, one of the only ones to have been represented in every modern Olympic Games. Anyone who has ever seen “The Princess Bride” or “Pirates of the Caribbean” has undoubtedly been inspired by the adventures of pirates and swashbucklers on the big screen.

I had wanted to fence since I was a 13-year old obsessed with pirates, swords and “Lord of the Rings.” Sadly, my parents had always put their foot down when it came to me getting caught up in such a potentially dangerous hobby. Once I came to UCI and learned that we had a fencing class, I saw it as my perfect opportunity to live out a childhood fantasy. In 2009 I took the ten-week beginners class offered at the ARC, taught at the time by Eric Holmgren, the current coach of the team. I, along with some other gangly and awkward undergrads, learned the basics of fencing foil, the most popular of the three weapons in fencing. After ten weeks I picked up a basic understanding of the sport that had intrigued me so many years ago.

Unfortunately, after the end of that quarter, I didn’t come back. I was aware that there was a fencing club that met immediately after the class ended — I stuck around once and was completely intimidated by this group of people I had never spoken to and who didn’t seem like they had the patience to teach a beginner anything. So I left. I went the next two years with a nagging sense of regret for not going back to fencing.

So in September of 2011, the beginning of my last year at UCI, I decided to go for it and join the club. I refused to let shyness or embarrassment keep me from doing something I loved. I returned to the activity annex, not knowing what to expect. I was comforted to know that while almost everyone else there had been fencing longer than I had, I wasn’t totally alone in my inexperience.

While I had only ever practiced foil fencing, I was quickly convinced by Yeelly Lei and Kent Chiu, other club members, to switch to fencing epee, a completely different weapon. With foil, only your opponent’s torso is the target you can hit to get a point. With an epee, you can hit your opponent anywhere on their body with the tip of your weapon to score. The third branch of the sport, saber, involves slashing and poking your opponent to get points; their entire upper body is fair game. All three of the weapons are physically different in their shape and design, and there are different rules regarding right of way (this is how referees decide who gets a point when simultaneous touches occur).

Participants are attached to an electronic scoring machine through an insulated body cord, which they wear under their jackets and connect to their electric weapons. The machine registers points whenever the tip of the fencer’s weapon is depressed with a specific amount of force. In this sport, mere milliseconds can spell the difference between getting a point and being “locked out” of the scoring system by your opponents touch.

Fencers practice different attacks and learn ways to defend against them through footwork and blade-work drills that develop all the necessary skills. The most basic defensive actions are called parries, which are designed to deflect an opposing attack from hitting your target area. There are eight basic parries which were numbered after the position a fencer takes in the motion of withdrawing their blade from its sheath.

Each fencer is outfitted with a jacket, knickers (pants), knee-high socks, body cord, underarm protector, glove, a weapon, a protective mask and for the ladies, a plastic chest protector. It’s enough protective gear to make you feel impervious to anything. That’s unfortunately not the case; every Wednesday and Friday after practice, I would come home with massive purple bruises and cuts on my right arm, a result of getting hit on the ideal epee target area of the arm. I wore those cuts and bruises like medals of honor, showing them off to my terrified parents and friends. They didn’t understand my somewhat sadistic obsession with the physical pain that came along with this sport.

But fencing has always seemed to attract a not-so-ordinary crowd of people. My immediate impression of the club at UCI was that they were all a bunch of stereotypical nerds — from “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica” to Magic the Gathering and Mass Effect; these people had a penchant for all things geeky (I pass no judgment, as I consider myself to be one of these “nerds”). Practice could easily turn into a spelling bee, a round of “Star Trek” trivia quizzing, a discussion about philosophy or a lesson in Latin. These people all seemed to have such a wide array of intellectual interests.

“We tend to attract a lot of geeky kinds of people,” says coach Holmgren, a self-described “Doctor Who” fanatic himself.

Unlike typical team sports that require you to sacrifice some of your independence for the sake of your team, fencing allows people to embrace individuality.

“This sport does not require you to be a super jock type of athlete to be successful;” says Holmgren. “It’s very much a mental game and an individual game. You don’t need a team and you don’t need to kick a ball to some other guy; it’s all you and your opponent. Geeky people tend to be more intellectual and analytical and so that’s why there’s the attraction to this game; it has a very significant intellectual element to it, and it’s very technical. We’re all kind of geeky, weird people, so there’s a social element to it. It’s just that some of us are geekier and weirder than others.”

It’s clear by watching the core members of the club that dedication, perseverance and critical thinking are necessary to success in this sport. Club members like Benjamin Leider, a philosophy graduate student who fenced for eight years prior to coming to UCI, are highly skilled because they’re willing to commit themselves to a sport that requires practice and attention to detail.

“Fencing is like having a conversation,” says Leider. “You say something, the other person replies, you account for their reply in what you say next, they do likewise, and this goes on until one of you runs out of things to say. There are many possible conversations, and you have different conversations with different people. Some people are thoughtful. Some people ask a lot of questions. Some people constantly interrupt. It’s remarkably like getting to know someone. In fact, it is getting to know someone, and in a fairly personal way that I can’t really describe.”

That’s how it goes every Wednesday and Friday night; a bunch of like-minded people with a mutual desire to stab each other with long metal swords get together and talk; whether it’s a conversation between blades or people, it’s always exciting.