It’s the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and saber fencer Peter Westbrook has just won the bronze medal—the first trophy awarded to an American in the sport in twenty-four years. As he shouts in celebration of his decisive 10−4 victory, his opponent, the Frenchman Hervé Granger-Veyron, falls to his knees weeping tears of humiliation.
There was a time when losing to an American was something for European fencers to be ashamed of. But that day has finally passed: No longer are international medals once-in-a-generation miracles like Westbrook’s. Now they’re expected. “The U.S. team has gone from struggling at the world level to being one that has international respect,” says Greg Dilworth, the executive director of the United States Fencing Association.
America now routinely takes home medals in fencing’s twelve competitive categories: men’s and women’s, team and individual, and the three weapons of foil, épée, and saber. Take last year at the Senior World Championships: Miles Chamley-Watson—currently ranked number two in the world in men’s foil, the highest ever for an American fencer in that category—was trying to climb into the round of 32, but, losing 14−7 to a top Ukrainian fencer, was one point away from being sent packing. Chamley-Watson changed his strategy and got on the attack, running his opponent down the strip and scoring one dazzling touch after another. At 14−14, he was awarded the winning touch on a parry riposte, but a tournament official overruled the referee, saying the point was too close to call. Unfazed, Chamley-Watson ran his opponent down the strip once more and scored on a clean lunge to win 15−14. “It was my favorite bout ever,” says the American fencer, who went on to place fifth in the tournament. The United States will once again cross swords (and thrust, slash, feint, parry, and riposte) with the sport’s top competitors at the 2011 World Fencing Championships in Catania, Italy, from October 8−16.
So why the slow start? The art of modern swordsmanship has been a part of European culture for more than four hundred years. But as a new nation seeking to break away from the Old World, Americans always favored pistols over swords when it came to defending honor. From the first Olympic Games, in 1896, fencing was dominated by a handful of European nations, including France, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Russia.
Beginning in the early 1990s, several serendipitous factors aligned to rocket the United Sates to the top of the sport. It’s a victory owed, ironically, to its longtime rivals—both on and off the fencing strip—in Communist Eastern Europe.
After the end of the Cold War, top fencing masters, often from Russia, began offering their services for hire overseas. Some signed million-dollar contracts to develop world-class fencing programs in other non-European countries, and many came to the United States to join regional fencing clubs and top college programs, such as those at Pennsylvania State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Princeton.
"Our membership has more than doubled, to around twenty-three thousand fencers, and the majority are under the age of eighteen." - Greg Dilworth
The influx of coaches accustomed to training kids from a young age led to a profusion of youth programs around the country. “Since 1990, we’ve experienced an explosion in the number of people who fence,” says Dilworth. “Our membership has more than doubled, to around twenty-three thousand fencers, and the majority are under the age of eighteen.” Chamley-Watson, twenty-one, is part of a new generation who took up fencing at the same young age when other American kids start playing baseball or basketball.
One of the pioneers of youth fencing programs is Westbrook who, since retiring from international competition as a six-time Olympian, has run the Peter Westbrook Foundation, a New York City−based nonprofit that trains inner-city kids in the art. “To be on the world level in any sport, you have to start young,” he says. “My preferred age is eight.” Westbrook employs nine full-time fencing masters—most of them from Europe—and many of America’s top competitors, especially in saber, have matriculated through his program.
Another factor instrumental in thrusting the United States into the limelight was the addition of women’s saber. Initially women only competed in foil; women’s épée became a World Fencing Championship event in 1989, and saber—arguably the most aggressive weapon—in 1999. Since no nation had a women’s saber tradition, “it allowed our athletes to start fresh on a level playing field with everyone else,” says Dilworth. Five years later, American Mariel Zagunis captured Olympic gold in women’s sabre at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, America’s first three medals of the games—which television stations immediately cut to cover—came in spectacular fashion with a women’s saber podium sweep: Zagunis (gold, defended), Sada Jacobson (silver), and Rebecca Ward (bronze).
But lest you think that fencing is a sport only for the young, in addition to the top twenty-something male and female talents the United States will send to the World Fencing Championships this year, there will also be a team of wise and wily septuagenarians competing in the seventy-plus category. No less competitive than the kids, they just need a little more time to stretch.
Fencing requires lightning-fast reflexes backed by an overriding strategy that must be constantly revised with each new opponent. To get in close enough to score with a lunge, fencers aggressively yet subtly manipulate distance and time. It’s a game of physical chess, crafty tricks, and stunning agility. Many of the thrusts and parries outlined in manuals like Giacomo di Grassi’s 1570 treatise His True Arte of Defence are still used today by sportsmen and women brandishing one of three “weapons” with different rules. Here’s a breakdown:
Whereas in foil and épée only a thrusting action with the point of the blade registers a valid hit, saber is based on a cutting or slashing motion with the side of the blade. The valid target is everything above the waist, including the arms and the head. Saber, which also requires right-of-way, is based on cavalry combat and for that reason the legs are off target, as a soldier would not want to risk injuring a horse that could be captured.
Based on the light court sword of the eighteenth century, the valid target is only the torso, front and back, which is meant to symbolize the area of a lethal blow. Foil requires right-of-way in order to score a point; priority is given to the fencer who initiates an attack. His or her opponent must successfully block, or “parry,” this attack before scoring with a riposte.
The épée is based on the classic dueling sword and is heavier and thicker. The entire body is a valid target, including the hands, the feet, and the mask. As in a real duel, there is no right-of-way; fencers are allowed to make a quick jab at an attacking opponent. However, as often happened in real duels, épée fencers may hit each other simultaneously, in which case both are awarded a point.
Christian Chensvold attended California State University, Fullerton, on a fencing scholarship under the United States Fencing Hall of Fame coach Heizaburo Okawa and was the conference foil champion in 1993. He is a New York−based writer.