Fencing is one of the world’s oldest sports, but it has always been a peripheral one in America, perhaps because it is not made for TV. However, its popularity is slowly growing. And one needn’t be young to fence—just agile, tactical and tough.
Illustration by David Hollenbach
You’ve pulled on your tall socks, athletic shoes and white knickers; donned your padded underarm protector, your long-sleeved and tight-fitting white jacket—and your glove. You’ve grabbed the wire-mesh mask and, most important, your weapon—either a foil, epée or saber, each about three feet long and made of strong yet flexible steel. Lastly, if fence foil or saber, you’ve donned a lamé, or conductive vest used with electronic scoring equipment. It’s now time to walk onto the piste—a grounded metallic strip that is long (14 meters) and narrow (about two meters wide). It leaves little room to maneuver—or escape.
Holding your mask under one arm, you face the other competitor. You each tip your weapon in salute three times—first to each other, then to the judge and then to your audience. Mask on, you assume the en garde position—and wait for the judge to say “and…fence.” And with that the fight begins—an “engagement” that can last a few seconds or a couple of minutes, depending on strategy and the aggressiveness of the combatants. There is a flashing of steel, a clashing of blades—feints and lunges, parries and ripostes, actions both simple and complex as you and your opponent move forward and back on the piste. Amid a flurry of attacks and counter-attacks, one fencer touches the other with the point (in foil or epée) or edge (in saber) of his blade and a point will be scored. Thus begins a richly complex contest of athleticism and strategy that is often described as “physical chess.”
Fencing is one of the world’s oldest and most traditional sports. It is an outgrowth of medieval and renaissance duels—to the death—and one of only four sports that have been on every modern Olympic program since 1896. Precisely because of its pedigree, fencing possesses what Allen Evans, who runs the Dominion Fencing Club in Vienna, calls “a rich and noble air.” In America, it has always been a peripheral, esoteric sport—and surely for that reason, not something we’ve excelled at. Fencing originated in Europe—the earliest schools were in Spain, Italy, France and Hungary—and Europeans have long dominated top-level fencing, but the sport is slowly growing in the United States. Though the numbers remain small, membership in the U.S. Fencing Association (USFA) has jumped from about 6,000 in 1982 to more than 23,000 in 2010. What’s more, says Scott O’Neal, an epée fencer and coach who runs the Richmond Fencing Club, “There are more national competitions than ever, and they grow larger every year. And in recent years, the U.S. has had more success at the international level. The U.S. is stepping up its top-level game.”
That is true: In April, the U.S. Junior Men’s Foil Team defended its world title, beating rival Italy—a traditional fencing power. The national Women’s Saber program is one of the strongest in the world. “We’ve had people taking medals in Olympic and World Championship events where we have never medaled before,” says O’Neal, 33, who is also on the executive committee of the Virginia Division of the USFA.
In Virginia, says O’Neal, there are 20 to 25 fencing clubs of various size, with more than 600 USFA members—up from about 400 eight or nine years ago. But USFA members account for less than half of club activity, typically; most have a substantial number of beginner and intermediate fencers who are not USFA members but nonetheless take classes or participate irregularly. A handful of the clubs hold USFA tournaments that are used to rate competitors.
At a recent tournament at the Richmond Fencing Club, about 100 people of diverse ages and skill levels battled to earn ratings that can range from A (highest) to E (lowest). In the first round, participants are evenly distributed into “pools” based on ratings (some good fencers, some not) where they must fence one another to determine seeding in the direct elimination round. If an unrated fencer can win a small event consisting of six competitors, says O’Neal, he or she can earn an E rating. Win a larger event—say, 15 competitors, and you might earn a D. “The hard part then becomes keeping the rating or improving upon it,” he says. “For many people, that’s a goal.”
One participant at the Richmond Fencing Club event was David Eaton, 43. A foilist, he started fencing in 1988, took several years off and then started back again. He was once a C-rated fencer but is now an E. “I was getting too old and fat and missed the excitement,” Eaton says. Like all fencers, he says that fencing is both physically and mentally demanding. Calling himself “extremely competitive,” Eaton says that he got “a big ego check” when he started losing. “I wasn’t used to it.” Then a series of shoulder injuries kept him away. “But I love the sport and so I kept coming back.”
What is the appeal of fencing? Well, for one thing, as O’Neal notes, “there is something inherently awesome about swinging a sword at someone,” though that swashbuckling-type thrill diminishes a bit when your opponent, also holding a sword, attacks you. More particularly, some people like the fact that fencing is not a mainstream team sport. It is an individual sport, like martial arts or tennis, and one’s success is dependent on one’s own ability. Experts note that some elite fencers can be very physical, quick and strong while others are not as athletic but are tactically astute and good at reading the opponent. Still others are very technically skilled with their weapons.
And that’s not all. As Evans points out, “there is a huge psychological component to fencing. Planning and strategy are involved.” He says that good fencers “are always thinking two or three moves ahead—there is calculation.” Evans estimates that in one’s first five years of competition, one’s success or failure is mostly a function of physical capabilities. But when fencers get more experienced and accomplished, the psychological factor becomes “huge.” For that reason, he says, outcomes can be unpredictable.
Parents find that fencing can intrigue kids who aren’t keen on team sports but are drawn to the idea of sword fighting. In that sense, says O’Neal, it can be a “stealthy” way to get a young person involved in athletic activity. And indeed, it is at the youth level where fencing has been growing most rapidly in the U.S.
Still, one doesn’t need to be young to fence. A lot of older people can be found on the piste. Phil Sbarbaro, a veteran trial lawyer in D.C., was 59 when he took up fencing after watching a Zorro movie with his daughter. He says he thought it might be fun. Now, at age 65, he’s one of the top veteran saberists in the country. Saber is the most aggressive of the three fencing disciplines: Sbarbaro jokes that “you have to have a bone removed from your head” before you can compete. He’s qualified for two Veterans World Championships (age 60 and over division) and competed in 18 North American Cups, finishing third nine times. In 2008, he recalls, he fought a Frenchman—nicknamed “the brute”—“who swung so hard that he cut my saber in half; it went into the wall and just missed my wife’s head.” Sbarbaro won the bout.
Sbarbaro heaps credit on his coach, Alexandre Ryjik, for his success. Ryjik, a witty Russian, owns what he says is the biggest fencing school in the country, the Virginia Academy of Fencing in Vienna. Ryjik began fencing at age 8 in St. Petersburg and went on to win many fencing titles. Now 43, he teaches a fencing class at both American University and George Mason and has owned the Virginia Academy of Fencing for 20 years. He has a son who is one of the best saberists in the country and will be a freshman at Harvard this fall.
Ryjik calls fencing “a special sport because of the level of intelligence involved.” He attributes the improvement in top-level U.S. fencing to quality coaching. “In my opinion, it’s because of Eastern European immigration—coaches who’ve come here over the last twenty years from Poland, Romania and Hungary,” the last an old bastion of fencing. He says that one of the things that is driving youth fencing is college admissions—the sport offers a way for students to differentiate themselves and get into top universities, some of which offer fencing scholarships.
Sbarbaro describes Ryjik as a very tough, old-school coach—a “gold or the gulag” type. But the Russian has some bold, even radical ideas for boosting the popularity of the sport. Ryjik asserts that some rules are outdated and hinder the public’s ability to grasp the sport—chiefly the “right of way” rule in foil and saber that determines who can win a point. Ryjik asserts that it “messes up the sport to the highest extent” and should be eliminated. He also believes fencing contests should be held in a ring and not on a strip. “Why go up and down—it doesn’t make any sense. Fencing should have a round field of play, like a duel.” Says Ryjik: “I’m not saying we should be using light sabers. I’m trying to change the rules of fencing so that it will be more enjoyable to watch for regular folks, so that we can move forward. I know what needs to be done—but will anybody listen to me?”
Evans, head of Dominion Fencing Club, does not share Ryjik’s viewpoint. He likes the fact that fencing has “a languid tradition” that goes way back in time, and says: “I’d hate to see us make a lot of changes to gain a TV audience that may not be there.” Like all experts, he says that fencing is not a TV sport because it’s impossible to follow the ultra-fast movements of the blade and thus see who wins the touch. He notes that some innovations have been tried—among them, putting clear plastic masks on competitors because consultants said that audiences wanted to see the faces of fencers. “Well, we did that,” says Allen, “and we didn’t get many more TV viewers than before, and then it was discovered that the masks could shatter and cause injury. Changing one or two things for novelty won’t do it.”
All of this is of no concern to the fencers at the Richmond Fencing Club’s recent ratings rally. Amid the constant pinging of the electronic scoring machines, they are intent on making lunges and parries and scoring their points. And when a bout is over and the competitors shake hands and take off their masks, one sees a certain exhausted pride on their faces that has little to do with winning or losing. It’s more a reflection of the physical and mental exertion needed to be even half-good at this complex and richly traditional sport. As 27-year-old competitor Paul Rothenbuhler, an Army lieutenant and logistics officer based at Fort Lee, told me: “It is a very demanding, and very satisfying, sport.”