En Garde! How I Learned About Fencing at Smith
by Patty Czepiel Hayes '84
For reasons now forgotten, I'd offered to write about Smith's fencing club. I'd even volunteered to give the sport a try. Although I'd never seen anyone fence, I assumed my general interest in athletics somehow qualified me. It's fencing, I thought. How hard can it be? We'll fence for 5 or 10 minutes, then I'll be on my way.
As I headed to Smith's Indoor Track and Tennis facility, questions swirled through my mind. Will I be able to see out of the mask? Do I have to say "en garde"? How sharp is that thing? I wondered how I'd gotten myself into this. It was 8:30 p.m. and my body was ready for sleeping, not exercising.
The sport may seem bizarre or exotic to some, but fencing is gaining popularity at Smith and across the United States, according to Julie Herrick '02, geology major and head of the Smith fencing club. The group currently has 15 to 20 students, one of the largest rosters in the club's recent history.
Fencing, which evolved from the ancient art of dueling, has long been popular in Europe and around the world. In its modern-day variant, fencing is lightning fast and scored electronically, with the help of metal sensors in the uniforms and weapons. A referee is also present to decipher the action. The sport is often described as a combination of boxing and chess, because of the physical intensity and mental focus required.
When I first arrived at the ITT, Julie fitted me with what she jokingly called a "straitjacket," and she wasn't kidding. It's made with heavy-duty fabric to protect the wearer from what would otherwise be the inevitable. The jacket weighed a ton and zipped in the back, so I was at her mercy from the start.
Julie gave me a glove, a weapon and a mask with a heavy throat guard. First we worked on proper stance and alignment. Knees bent. Stay low. The feet have to be just so. It reminded me of yoga. And then there's the footwork. Advance, retreat. Advance, retreat. Lunge. Run away. (Actually, she didn't let me get away with the running part.)
Most students come to Smith with no fencing experience. With the help of fencing club coach Scott Tundermann, a seasoned fencer himself and coach of the Smith club since 1997, students quickly develop their skills. Within the club structure, the experienced fencers help teach the novices. This collaborative "trickle-down effect," as Herrick describes it, creates an atmosphere of respect and camaraderie.
arriving at Smith with no fencing experience, Herrick has become
well-versed in the intricacies of the sport. In her third year
with the club, she speaks with enthusiasm about mental focus
and athleticism. "In fencing, you must outsmart your opponent,"
she explains. "The sport is similar to a martial art in
that sense." Bouts (individual games) are scored using a
point system, based on the number of points, or "touches,"
a fencer is able to gain by making contact within the target
area. Fencers move forward and backward, never sideways, within
a 5-by- 55-foot "strip." Muscle strength is important
for quickness and correct posture, so training involves push-ups,
jogging, stomach crunches, arm circles and wall-sits.
Julie worked me harder than I expected. After just 30 seconds in the en garde ("get ready") position, my quadriceps were screaming. In about 20 minutes my legs were wobbly and sweat was literally running down my back. I wanted to remind Julie that I am nearly twice her age, but decided against it. (I have my pride.)
Finally we practiced blade work-performing the same moves and maintaining the correct posture, but now with weapon in hand and wearing our masks. (Yes, I could see.) Keeping track of the blade requires concentration, as does trying to score a "touch." (Contact with the end of the blade is hardly as light as a touch, but more about that later.)
Novice fencers at Smith generally begin using the foil, the more traditional of the three options. After gaining some experience, they literally choose their weapons. "What draws me so strongly to épée fencing," says Herrick, "is how realistic and almost natural it feels. Offense and defense are combined in a way not possible in foil or sabre." Herrick is so hooked on the sport that she plans to continue fencing after graduation. Wherever her geology work takes her, she'll look for opportunities to make fencing a part of her life. Fortunately, clubs and competitions exist for women and men of all ages, in the United States and abroad.
Things were getting more complicated
and yet I sensed we were barely scratching the surface. A "parry"
is a move to ward off the opponent's blade with your own, basically
swatting the blade away as it rushes toward you. Each type of
"parry" has a name, of which I couldn't keep track.
A "riposte" is an answering attack, a quick return,
or thrust of your blade toward your opponent immediately after
Considering that we were supposed to be engaged in battle, this seemed extremely civilized. Julie was articulate and polite. She smiled through the entire two hours and didn't break a sweat. She was very athletic and light on her feet, and reminded me of a ballet dancer-each movement was graceful and efficient. (Hers, not mine.)
The opportunity for fencing competition at Smith is as varied as the skill levels. Some students focus exclusively on weekly practices. For those who desire competition, four meets are scheduled each semester. Smith regularly competes against clubs or varsity teams, including those from Amherst College, Boston College, Dartmouth, MIT, UMass/Amherst, Vassar and Wellesley.
Their training as members of the fencing club provides Smith students with the skills to compete against fencers from all over the world. In July 2001, Eleanor Bartolomeo '03 and Anna Strowe '03 appeared in the United States Fencing Association's Summer National Championships in Sacramento, California. More recently, Ruth Ann Hacking '03, studying abroad, won the top title in New Zealand's National Fencing Competition for women's sabre.
After two hours, I was more than ready to wrap things up. Before leaving, however, I wanted to get a sense of the authentic pace of this sport, rather than our slow-motion action. I asked Julie if we could try one more exchange, with her moving at her normal, competitive speed. Her smile broadened.
We assumed the en garde position. My quads reluctantly complied. I prepared myself physically and mentally. I adjusted my posture, the position of my elbow, realigned my toes, and brought my eyes up to hers. I was ready.
Before I moved a muscle, Julie advanced and impaled me in the throat. Hard. The exact point of contact was the left jugular vein. (Game over.) She smiled sweetly.
I suppose "impaled" is too strong a word, since the heavy throat guard protected me completely, but the impact startled me. This certainly seems like a good stopping place, I thought, since technically I've been killed. I'm not sure there's really a "kill" in fencing, but she'd definitely scored a point. (I wonder if you get two points for the jugular?)
about the general nature of Smith's club sport structure, Athletic
Director Lynn Oberbillig described the valuable experience it
provides to students. "The successful clubs have found a
way to perpetuate their existence with outstanding student leaders.
So not only are club sports a way to compete, stay actively fit
and build teamwork, they provide excellent leadership opportunities
At the end of our session, Julie and I chatted and laughed as I peeled off the straitjacket. We made plans to keep in touch, perhaps at the club's next scrimmage. By 10:30 p.m., my pride and I wobbled out of the building and to my car. It was time to be on my way. I'd survived, so to speak, my first fencing lesson.
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