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Fencing and Life

Live and Learn | April 10th, 2023

By Traci Sethre

An integral piece of fencing is your mask. Its integrity keeps you safe. It’s typically painted black to hide your face and expressions. You want to reveal nothing. At the beginning of a bout, you use your weapon to salute your opponent, the referee, then the crowd, and then you put your mask on.

This is the small moment you collect yourself, the fencer. You breathe in and out slowly to calm yourself, take a moment to focus, then you put your mask on. Your training, your night before, your last meal, everything weighs on this moment. It’s just you against your opponent.

But behind the fencing mask is a different you. Your personality can completely change from shy to aggressive, from dreamer to highly concentrated athlete, from a friend to a manipulative enemy. The mask doesn’t just cover you. It reveals another you once it’s in place.

The moment the referee calls out “Fence!” you begin the game. You need to figure out your opponent, quickly. You only get so many points or so many minutes to win, so every decision matters.You can sacrifice some points or some time to figure out your opponent, but you must keep your eyes open, always looking for your moment to strike.

Your allies are knowing how to control your speed, timing, tempo; your intuition, and technique; knowing how to keep your distance, understanding the rules, and having a strategy.

There are a flurry of actions, plans, attempts to score, and fake attempts to score to lure your opponent in. Plans are constantly changing because you need to stay one step ahead of your opponent. You need to be engaged, determined, and able to rely on the you that’s behind the mask. This is fencing.

Fencing appeals to many people as it doesn’t discriminate in ways that team-centric sports do. In contrast, fencing values diversity and is accessible to most people regardless of their size, shape, or age.

Beginners to fencing come into their first lessons at all levels of athleticism, spatial awareness, maturity, fortitude, and goal setting. A typical fencing club has fencers of varied skill levels, different backgrounds, different ideas of why they are there (fun, learning experience, to compete) and a camaraderie that rivals any other sports club.

Individual fencers bring their ideas, creativity, and their strengths and weaknesses into a personalized style that cookie-cutter sports don’t encourage. To fence, they also learn to think quickly on their feet, to use their opponent’s tells to develop a strategy, and how to be tricky and fool their opponent.

Fencing is a male-dominated sport. It was one of 43 events at the first Olympics held in 1896, but there are indications of its origins in historical accounts of duels and self-defense. In the mid 1700’s, fencing began to turn into a competitive sport.

Modern fencing consists of three styles: Foil, Epee, and Sabre. Women were allowed to compete in The Olympics with foil fencing in 1924, epee in 1996, and sabre in 2004.

Excluding women for so long created an enormous disparity. There are more male than female fencers, and when talking about coaches, referees, and others in the official governing body, USA Fencing, the imbalance is worse.

Despite the inequality, rising numbers of females and others from marginalized groups are entering into and competing in the sport, at local to national levels, and exhibiting an impressive amount of skill.

It is important to note that because of the inclusive nature of fencing, from clubs to coaches, to USA Fencing, we have policies and procedures in place to protect our LGBTQ+ community, including transgender fencers who are in transition.

No one fences at their best unless they’re in a good place, and that’s the goal of any credible coach, to help their fencers feel safe and included. (Within the article, I don’t intend to be hurtful or exclusive with gender-specific terminology, but can include male-identified and female-identified as terms when talking about genders within the sport.)

The learning curve is huge if not lifelong, and one can enter into it at any age. The basics can take fencers years to feel comfortable with before taking their skills to a competition, where others learn a few things and suddenly they want to compete. Either path taken, a new fencer realizes that as they learn one thing or one aspect of the sport, another layer presents itself.

Each opponent is a new puzzle to solve. Fencing is one challenge after another and it requires resiliency. Losing a fencing bout isn’t really losing, it’s an opportunity to work on something. Realizing your mistake or series of mistakes is recognizing a weakness that your opponent was gracious enough to teach you, whether they realized it or not.

A fencer’s success comes from good coaching, supportive teammates; and importantly, an internal drive to succeed, whether they define success as medaling at competitions, improving technique, or simply having fun.

Without knowing anything about fencing, the sport can seem brutal, archaic, or even silly. It's surprising to many that fencing is not hacking and slashing at your opponent, it is a sport of intricate technique and defined by rules.

The blades we use are blunt-tipped, and the best touches are those that are barely felt. Still, for new fencers, there is often a hesitation to hit or make a touch, or to receive one. We are well padded by layers of protection, but the idea of using a weapon against someone is a huge hurdle. Getting past this hurdle, especially for female fencers, involves more than simple demonstrations or explanations.

Most clubs have a majority of male fencers and coaches. Cultural connotations, if let to play out, can cause females and others to be lose interest in the sport. It’s important to recognize the power structure that we’re culturally taught: men are more powerful, women are weak; men fight, women don’t; men instruct, women listen.

This dynamic also reveals itself in male vs female fencer bouts. One or both fencers can be affected by society’s message that males are to go easy on female fencers. If not called out, this behavior is normalized in a club and sets up its female participants to fail, by not giving them good or realistic sparring partners, which further ingrains the idea that females are weak. When a club has a female coach, this dynamic not only changes, but these types of barriers are more likely to be brought down.

Coaches work together to teach new fencers that fencing isn’t about being the fastest, strongest, tallest, or most muscular. It’s not just a sport, it’s also a mind game, and relying on your opponent adhering to cultural stereotypes isn't going to work. Female coaches have already been exposed numerous times to this type of thinking, within and outside of the fencing salle.

The coaches know how to use gender in their favor when in a bout against a male fencer, and will teach their own fencers to use deception to demonstrate the obvious, which is, she’s not afraid of her opponent. For example, she appears to be hesitant to make an attack, allowing for the illusion of weakness, while using the opportunity to gain information on what her opponent’s go-to actions will be.

From the perspective of a female coach teaching new female fencers, my first intention is to show them how to safely handle a foil. The next goal is to guide them through the fear of using a foil by demonstrating that it isn’t going to hurt the other person when you make a touch, and it’s not going to hurt to get hit. Everything we do in those first lessons is about the fencer gaining confidence in themselves and their actions.

The simplest of actions, extension of the arm to bring the blade’s tip to the opponent’s chest, creates an internal conflict: Is this okay to do? Many times, they tell me various reasons why they can’t do a certain action - because they’re shy, they don’t like hurting someone, they’re afraid of something, the list goes on, and those reasons are valid. Who they are, or who they think they are, what they’re feeling in the moment are human emotions, and being able to express those things when someone is pushing them to do something they signed up for but aren’t yet comfortable with, is a vulnerable truth.

This allows me to present them with a change in perspective because we are all a bundle of emotions and experiences, and can be adverse to trying something new and scary. If we can rationalize the person we are by saying ‘I can’t,’ we can also rationalize the person we can be with, ‘I can.’ With the help of a mask and encouragement, I see new fencers realize that they can put aside their fears for a little bit, they can see that failure is transient, that it’s ok to feel good when performing a correct action and winning a bout, and they can face a challenge with resolve because they have someone right there who believes in them; ultimately, they learn to use their fencing mask as a way to let the warrior within come out to play.

And, they know that when practice is over, when we take that fencing mask off, the other person who’s friendly and personable is still there, the person with responsibilities and worries never left. When that epiphany happens, it’s noticeable in the fencer’s attitude and even their stance; they have a new level of certainty with what they’re capable of doing and being.

In my coaching experience, this translates into the real world, especially with teenagers, who are coming into fencing with varying degrees of self-esteem and self-actualization. When they are given a place to be themselves, to explore what it is to be responsible for their own success, yet to have a group of others who are dealing with the same challenges, cheering them on and catching them when they fall, that is powerful.

On the competitive side, there are a variety of tournament types. They range from local competitions that are open to anyone, and are for fun, to rated National Tournaments that are regulated by USA Fencing. Age categories help keep younger fencers from facing older, more experienced fencers, and then at 40 years old and older, you can join “vet” tournaments, so as to keep the younger, more uninhibited fencers from adults who have a different outlook on life and competition. There is also parafencing, where the fencers are seated in chairs that are fixed to the ground.

There are barriers to entering the sport of fencing such as cost, availability of a club, and club atmosphere. In comparison to cities of equal size, our community is rich in fencing opportunities, as club fees are reasonable, there are currently two clubs, and both places have excellent coaches, great introductory classes, and for fencers who want to get in a lot of practice, there are opportunities to fence almost seven days a week.

Another perk is that parents and their children can learn how to fence together, making an intro class into a fun family experience.

Fargo-Moorhead Fencing Club has a Musketeer program for 9-12 years olds. They also have an all school program that includes a high school program. This club has traveled to neighboring states with a high school team, with excellent results. There are competitions such as Minnesota High School Championships and Junior Olympics that this club helps prepare their fencers to attend.

Fargo Parks District offers a Fencing program for ages starting at 12 years, holds mixed age classes, and has several vet-aged fencers. They also offer lessons in refereeing and armory (learning how to repair weapons, scoring boxes, troubleshoot electronic issues, for example.) They host fencing tournaments in Fargo throughout the year.

About myself: I started fencing with Fargo Parks in late 2017. I started competing at local tournaments almost immediately, as it was a great way to gauge my skill level and what I needed to work on next. I dabbled in tournaments here in Fargo and in Minneapolis. Then Covid happened and it was interesting to see the fencing community pull together to offer Zoom practice sessions, and come up with creative ways to practice bladework and footwork at home.

In 2021 I attended my first serious event, the Vet Nationals in Atlanta, Georgia, and placed 3rd in my age category. Taking 3rd is great, it’s a national medal, but for someone who’s unnecessarily competitive, it was time to have a little talk with myself.

I decided to be more serious with my training. In 2022, I started taking private fencing lessons in Minneapolis and at the Fargo-Moorhead Fencing Club. The most important thing I learned from these lessons was patience. A well executed action without patience is a lost point.

Back when I was in Atlanta, I met and competed against a female fencer who I had become a fan of thanks to her youtube videos, competition videos, and strong personality, named Julie Seal. Fast-forward to February 2023, I flew to Utah to take coaching lessons from her, and the experience solidified my goal to become a coach.

With Julie’s help, I understand the power of female-to-female coaching. Within the scope of a marginalized group, we’re the ones that need to do the lifting up of others, and when I say lifting up, I mean we put as many as we can onto our shoulders so that they can do and see better.

Fencing is a sport that takes a lot of training and experience to feel really comfortable at competitions or even within your own club’s fun tournaments, to know you’ll place or have a shot at winning, and because of that, lots of fencers don’t like to give up their secrets. They worked hard for what they have gained, and it seems dismissive to the effort put in to just give it away.

I understand that because I’ve been there too. But, as a coach, for my fencers, every lesson we do, and every piece of advice I give, everything is so that they can win against their opponents, even if the opponent is me.

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