Fencing: a unique, cerebral sport

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Photo: Wikimedia commons
Photo: Wikimedia commons
Photo: Wikimedia commons

My opponent has scored a hit, and I pause for breath as we re-take our starting positions. I’m furious with myself for being outmanoeuvred and taking a step too close. I was too eager when attempting to make my opponent lunge at me; I hoped that I could dodge and, while my opponent was compromised, launch an attack. The weapons we are using do not include any of the three common ones –– foil, épée and sabre –– but instead socks that we take turns flicking at each other. This is quite a simple exercise, but it really does serve as an excellent introduction to fencing, which, possibly more than any other sport, makes you think. I was very excited to try fencing, partly because the sport itself is so unique and intriguing.

While the fact that fencing involves swords is the most obvious point of difference, the movement and aim (to simply make contact with your opponent) of the sport combine to make it look and feel completely different from any others I have attempted or watched. The rest of my excitement came from the fact that I am all too aware that my journalistic portfolio at present is that of an armchair critic. I was absolutely ready, albeit at the most basic level, to get involved. My excitement was definitely carried into the session. After a brief warm-up, we donned our equipment, partnered up and grabbed our sabre swords. We took turns tapping our opponent’s helmet with a quick thrust. This was followed with some simple blocks, ripostes and other attacks. After repeated drills, it was gratifying to feel some improvement in technique. What quickly became clear, however, was just how clumsy everyone’s technique was. This realisation illuminated how daunting my goal of learning to fence in a two-hour session really was.

“Fencing is an incredibly easy sport to learn the basics of, but [it is] challenging to master,” Philip Trevisan, the men’s team captain, said. “Once you start fencing, you can see improvement almost immediately, and even the best fencers in the world now are constantly training to improve their reflexes, tactics and footwork.” Indeed, it is fascinating to see how trying a sport yourself makes the skill level of the best players obvious. It was the footwork exercises, though, including the sock game mentioned at the beginning of the article, that really helped me understand the importance of strategy and complex, lightning-quick decision making. The sock game involves taking two steps forward, as small or large as you’d like, during your turn, and moving backwards as many steps as you’d like during your opponent’s turn. After several shambolic attempts, I worked out a method: taking steps forward so that I was just out of my opponent’s sock-flicking range and then waiting for him to misguidedly enter into my range. It sounds simple enough, but when the pace picks up, especially several points in, the competitive element takes it up a notch. Granted, this was the most basic level of fencing training, but it made clear how important strategy is in this sport.

Mr Trevisan said: “Being able to get inside [of] your opponent’s head and figure out their tactics and what they’re trying to do, while simultaneously coming up with plans to counter their actions, is both challenging and rewarding.” It was the last segment, the épée, that finally dispelled the false notions that I had about fencing. In my head, fencing was somehow similar to the childhood sword fights I had with plastic swords or sticks picked up from a park. But a bout of épée made me realise how far from the truth this perception was. On my first few attempts, I viewed the exercise as simply another sword fight. After a few parries, I was touched on the arm and the shoe as I attempted to land a clean shot on my opponent’s chest. Rather than trying to quickly make contact with my opponent, I tried to hit their sword in an attempt to engage in swordplay. Soon, I realised that it didn’t matter if I was touched shortly after I landed a hit. I also learned that a quick thrust was much more effective. Overall, the bouts were much more competitive and adrenaline-fuelled than I expected. There is something oddly exhilarating about sparring, as well as the surprising pace of the sport; the exercises would not last very long, but it felt like so much happened in each one.

I started fencing as a complete novice, but I felt like I had already learned a great deal after just a two-hour session. Of course, the session did make me realise just how much more there is to learn. A great amount of credit for these discoveries goes to how superbly the session was run by Jenny Zahn, the women’s team captain. The team was full of excellent teachers who patiently explained the multitude of ways I was holding my body wrong, but more importantly, members were friendly and warm.

Fencing was actually a completely different sport than I had expected, but it was the amount it made me think about what I was doing in order to make strategic decisions mid-bout that surprised me most. In a way, fencing is just as much a cerebral sport as it is an athletic one, and on reflection, maybe that is what makes it so unique.

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