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En Garde Duty

Health Wanted


Published October 8, 2003 at 4:00 p.m.

My borrowed glove is moist with sweat, yellowed from use and about three sizes too big. But the moment I receive the foil and curl my clammy fingers around its grip, I'm transformed. The three-foot blade seems like an extension of my fingertips, magical.

I have no rational reason to feel like Madonna in Die Another Day -- my only experience even remotely related to fencing is whacking one of my brothers over the head with a ski pole. But that doesn't prevent me from lunging at the fencing instructor. Jim Knapp and I begin to shuffle across the floor of Marsh Dining Hall at the University of Vermont, our blades crossed in an exercise designed to teach speed and judgment.

We begin a bit of friendly assault. Since I don't have a chest plate -- not that there's much of a target -- Knapp takes it easy on me, but every time I get a chance, I jab at his torso.

"You're pretty good for a beginner," he tells me.

Fancy footwork? Quick blade? Soon, I shall be swinging from the chandelier and dashing through duel after duel! "Oh, yeah?" I ask through my mask.

"Yeah, you're not afraid to hit me hard," he says, rubbing his vest a bit.

Whoops. Clearly, I have a lot to learn about this sport. Practiced by the ancient Egyptians, it is one of only four events to have remained in the Olympic games since their modern inception in 1896.

Known by the French as l'escrime, fencing was employed to settle disputes until the mid-19th century, when the law started catching up with the swordsmen. Thinking about those Errol Flynn films, the flicking of gems from female throats? Well, most of what you know about fencing belongs, as they might say in France, in le garbage.

Here are a few truths about fencing, in no particular order.

1. There are three types of fencing weapons and corresponding disciplines: foil, epee and sabre. Foil fencers use the lightest and most flexible of the weapons, with the torso as the "valid target area." Epee fencers can go for the entire body, with a heavier and stiffer blade. In sabre, fencers use a more sword-like weapon, and can aim anywhere from the bend of the hips to the top of the head.

2. Neil Diamond went to New York University on a fencing scholarship -- the sabre was his weapon of choice.

3. At one time, the highest-ranked epee fencer in America was 72.

For all the simplicity of its premise -- clash swords until one person gets hit -- fencing is among the most complex and dynamic of sports. Many ballet stances actually derived from those in fencing: precise, balanced and elegant positions that require years to perfect. From "attack au fer" to "whip-over," the glossary of fencing terms is some five pages long, much of it in French.

Often called physical chess, fencing requires tremendous speed and agility and super-sharp mental acuity. The latter might help to explain a 72-year-old's prowess. "It's great exercise, mental and physical," says Hancock-based fencer Mike Kolesnik, 56, who took up the sport in 2000. "And if you're an older fencer, the mental part really pays off; we have to be sneakier."

Kolesnik is one of more than 100 members who comprise the Green Mountain Division of the United States Fencing Association, a group that's grown almost exponentially in the last couple of years. "I haven't got a clue why there's so much more interest now," says Knapp, who is the local vice president. "I guess it's like when I started taking karate lessons a long time ago -- it's just this new thing that starts to spread by word of mouth."

At a recent tournament, the Fall Foliage Open, some three dozen of these Vermont fencers gathered at the UVM tennis courts for more than eight hours of foil, epee and sabre competition. As rain drummed on the roof, competitors wiggled into the strait-jacket-like tops and white britches and tried to recruit fellow fencers for an upcoming Renaissance festival. Others milled about in T-shirts reading "I Fence, Therefore I Am." (More trivia: Philosopher Rene Descartes was a fencing master, as is vocalist Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden.)

Throughout the day of the tournament, fencers followed a round-robin format, facing each other in bouts of three minutes, or five points, until winners were determined by elimination. Each bout consisted of a formal salute to each other, the en garde! call from the referee, and a fast and furious, back-and-forth dance between fencers of various levels. Competitors range in age from 13 to nearly 60. The youngest swashbuckler present was a 2-year-old boy with flowing blond locks and a plastic sabre tucked under his arm.

"We've had people fencing in this division for 30, 40 years," says Knapp. "And every time they go to a tournament, they say they learn something new."

The atmosphere was electric -- literally. Since the 1930s, fencing tournaments have been scored electronically, with wires attached to the blade of each weapon; foil and sabre fencers also wear a metallic vest, called a lame, to register touches. At the Fall Foliage Open, a few fencers looked nervously from the leaky roof to the wires running across the floor to each competition area. While the voltage coursing through here is only enough to cause a tingle, a Hungarian fencer is rumored to have electrocuted himself by stepping onto an improperly grounded piece of equipment.

Which begs the question: Just how safe is this sport, anyway? "Very few people have been seriously injured in fencing," says Knapp. "And I've heard that only three people have died while fencing, since 1920."

With the protective gear, the design of the blade and the decorum of fencers, the sport is said to be safer than golf, and the injuries tend to be more cosmetic than serious casualties. "Scratches, black-and-blue marks," says Knapp. "But we call them trophies. That way, in a tournament, everyone goes home with a trophy."

At a fencing class the day after the tournament, Erin Burk, 17 and clad in green gym shorts, seems to want a few more "trophies." A former ballet dancer, she makes the 45-minute trip from her home in Stowe to take lessons in Burlington. "It's a romantic sport," she says. "It has such an elegance, and is very dignified. Anyone I tell that I fence, they're immediately intrigued."

American women fencers have begun to dominate the sport's headlines, with women's sabre set to debut at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The Green Moun-tain Division boasts Viveka Fox, a former all-Ivy fencer and North Atlantic foil champion, and increasing numbers of women are showing up at classes and tournaments. "Sometimes it's hard to get girls interested," admits Burk. "I think it's much more appealing to men because of the idea of a sword. They're like, ‘Woo-hoo, look at me, I've got a sword!'"

Which is exactly how I feel after some accelerated instruction from Knapp. Typically, a beginning fencer practices footwork, balance and hand positions for weeks before moving onto the blade work. If you practice twice a week, you should be ready to compete in just a few months. "Fencing is a game of the mind and body melded," says Knapp. "And when you get to the competitive level of fencing, you can't think. Your body has to know what it's doing and just do it."