If anyone saw us walking down the street together, they would probably wonder what we could possibly have in common. We are men and women; children, teens, and adults; tall and short; fit and not so much. However, as we congregate as a group at the club, all dressed in white, faces concealed by masks, the differences fade away. We all advance and retreat. We all lung. We all parry. We all repost. We all score touches. We all compete. We all socialize. We are all fencers.
So, what is fencing all about? Well, it depends on who you ask. For many people, fencing is the stuff you put around your garden to keep the bunnies out, and some of us, upon saying that we are fencers, have actually been asked if that means we build fences. For other people, fencing is the climax of an action movie when the hero and villain are teetering on the edge of a precipice, locked in a perilous sword fight. For those of us who call ourselves fencers, fencing is an exciting sport that unites both physical and mental competition. To use a common phrase, it is “physical chess.” While fencing carries with it medieval connotations, it is, in reality, a modern-day sport that is growingly rapidly within the United States and is particularly popular in New Jersey.
In fencing, two opponents move backwards and forwards on a strip together as if in a game of cat and mouse. Each fencer tries to touch his or her opponent without first being touched him or herself, and when one fencer succeeds in doing so, he or she wins a point. In past days, fencers and referees were left to determine who had touched whom by their own judgment, but luckily, with today’s technology, fencers hook up to machines before beginning a bout, and when a touch is made, a light and buzzer inform the fencers as to who scored. Each time this happens, the fencers pause, return to the center of the strip, and begin fencing another point. The first person to score a certain number of points (usually either five or fifteen) wins the bout.
That is pretty simple, right? However, it does get a bit more complicated, for there are three different weapons used by fencers, and each one has its own unique set of rules. The épée is one of the two “poking weapons,” so to win a point, one must compress the tip of the blade. When fencing épée, the entire body is the target, which means that an épée fencer can score a touch by hitting his or her opponent’s foot, leg, torso, hand, or any other part of the body. Also, if the opponents touch one another simultaneously, they both receive a point. Épée fencers are often considered to have the most patience, and their bouts generally take longest.
Foil, a second weapon, is also a “poking weapon,” but is smaller and lighter than an épée. Additionally, in foil, only the torso is a target, and if foil fencers touch one another simultaneously, only the person who has the “right of way” will earn a point. Most simply, right of way is granted to the fencer who begins the offensive attack if the attack is successful or to that fencer’s opponent if the attack fails and the opponent’s response is successful.
Finally, sabre is primarily a slashing weapon, but as long as sabre fencers make contact with their opponents, whether by thrust or slash, they win the point. The target area for sabre is everything from the waist up, and as in foil, scoring follows the rules of right of way. Generally, sabre bouts are the fastest and the most aggressive.
Overall, fencing is a game of physical and mental strength. One’s legs must be strong enough to power oneself forward and backward within a squatting position; one’s arm must be strong enough to manipulate one’s weapon, and one’s mind must be strong enough to out-calculate one’s opponent. In many ways, it is a difficult sport to master, but all types and ages of people can and do attempt to do so.
On any given night, if one walks into Medeo Fencing Club in Bridgewater, New Jersey, one will find all types of people enjoying fencing together. In this lies one of the greatest benefits of fencing. Recreationally participating in many sports requires organizing with a group of people to meet at a specific time on a specific day. However, if one joins a fencing club, one has much more flexibility. If one would like to fence, one can drive to the club and fence whoever is there for however long one would like, and on the flip-side, if one is too busy one evening, one can simply not go. Furthermore, there is no reason to worry about not being able to find someone of one’s own ability to fence upon arriving at the club. The fencing community is a very courteous group, and it is expected that everyone be willing to fence with everyone else. Men, women, children, gifted fencers, and beginners all compete together at the club, and new fencers, whether adults, teens, or children, are welcomed into the community. In addition, fencers can participate in tournaments for people of all ages and abilities that are sponsored by the United States Fencing Association.
As a final note, while it is reasonable to worry about safety in a sport that calls for hitting one’s opponent with a weapon, fencing is, in reality, a very safe sport. Beyond mild bruising, fencing injuries are few and far between.
It is difficult to imagine a serious basketball, soccer, or baseball game being played by a hodgepodge of people. In fact, preteen girls, young men, mothers, and grandfathers are unlikely to ever be spotted competing against each other in pretty much any sport, yet in fencing, this is not so much the case. In the past few years, I have fenced people who fit into all four of the above categories, and I have not just fenced them but competed against them in close bouts. After all, there is room for all types of people within the fencing community, so no matter who you are, you should consider giving fencing a chance. After all, what do you have to lose?
Laura Sluyter is a senior at Vorhees High School. She has applied to U. Penn, MIT, Cornell, Lehigh, Carnegie Mellon and other fine universities.