Fencing is a sport that requires a sharp wit. More than physical prowess or even bladework, the true test of skill lies in developing a strategy – often one that must be applied within seconds of an attack.
“My first coach said fencing is like chess at 1,000 miles an hour,” graduate student Austin Voecks said. Just like a game of chess, the strategy one develops through testing their opponent again and again matters more than the physical strength one possesses.
With a team of around 10 fencers, the Western Fencing Club is a close-knit community of all different backgrounds and levels of experience.
The closeness of the fencing community is part of what makes it so special, non-student club member Adrian Diel said. Beginning in the fall, the club starts with basic training sessions that focus on getting new fencers up to speed.
“The continuing theme of fencing itself is comradery,” Diel said. “No matter where you go, it’s still the same atmosphere. I fenced for years in Louisiana and for a while in California, and no matter what salle – a fencing club – they all have that same common goal and interest of wanting people to practice and to get better at something. It really draws people together.”
“Coming in without any previous experience, the tendency is you want to use your sword and parry; kind of ‘Hollywood’ it up.”
Junior Jake Anderson
Though fencing has existed for centuries, it wasn’t until Domenico Angelo started his School of Arms in Carlisle House, Soho, London in the mid-18th century that fencing transitioned from a military practice to a sport.
Fencing has continued to be one of the longest practiced sports, although senior Caela Mandigo recognizes its niche appeal.
Each Western practice begins with footwork, followed by round-robin fencing, where each fencer has the opportunity to face off against each team member in individuals contests.
Focusing on the mental side of fencing - developing strategy and acting on tactics - is one of many lessons head coach Michael Allen instills in his students at the end of each practice.
Junior Jake Anderson, who rejoined the club this past fall, said he enjoys the lessons taught by Allen.
Footwork is one of the most fundamental components of fencing, yet it is also one of the most challenging, Anderson said.
“Coming in without any previous experience, the tendency is you want to use your sword and parry; kind of ‘Hollywood’ it up,” Anderson said. “But if you’re not moving your feet while you’re doing that, you can be as fancy as you like and you’re still going to get stabbed in the chest.”
After building upon the footwork, the club then focuses on weapon mechanics. There are three different types of weapons: the foil, the epee and the sabre.
The foil is often taught first, as it is the hardest style to learn, Diel said. With foil, the target area is limited to the torso, whereas epee covers the whole body. Sabre, which was recently added to the training regiment this year, focuses on the upper-body.
“You get to a point where you understand the mechanics pretty well – then it’s a matter of choosing which moves and the strategy,” Voecks said. “Trying to read your opponent – that’s the hard part.”
Just like a game of chess, the strategy one develops through testing their opponent again and again matters more than the physical strength one possesses.
“It’s a mind game,” Voecks said.
For Anderson and others, Allen’s lessons go beyond just the sport of fencing.
One lesson Anderson said he is still working on is how to handle losing. “It’s okay to make mistakes – to fail – as long as you learn something from the experience,” Anderson said.
In the end, the battles each fencer faces are not only decided by the strength of their footwork or the finesse of their blade, but by their ability to internalize the tactics and strategy they build upon throughout their training.