En garde

In the second of six features, the Journal meets the fencing team

Two Queen’s fencers duel during practise at the gym in West Campus’ Duncan McArthur Hall last Wednesday.
Two Queen’s fencers duel during practise at the gym in West Campus’ Duncan McArthur Hall last Wednesday.
Journal reporter Emily Davies attempts to duel with men’s foil team captain and assistant coach Christian Petrozza.
Journal reporter Emily Davies attempts to duel with men’s foil team captain and assistant coach Christian Petrozza.

It’s Wednesday afternoon and I enter Duncan McArthur Hall, immediately learning the first two things I’d pick up on what would be a very educational day. First of all, I didn’t know there was a gym over on West Campus. Secondly, I learnt it was the home of the Queen’s fencing team. Seriously, there’s a sign.

“As far as I know we’re the only team that uses this gym,” said Christian Petrozza, the assistant coach of the fencing team and men’s foil captain. “I think there’s some intramural teams that play here, but this is where we always practice.”

Not surprising for a sport of royalty, the fencing team has a storied history at Queen’s. Its status as a varsity sport is known to date as far back as 1908. Until the late 1930s, it was part of the Queen’s “Assault at Arms” team, which also included wrestling and boxing and was for a long time coached by James Bews, the namesake of Bews gymnasium in the PEC.

Today, the team practices four days a week as part of the broader Queen’s Fencing Club, which includes a recreational development program component, and provides training for the varsity athletes.

As I walked into the gym and crossed the threshold of the world of the Queen’s fencing team, images of Napoleonic battles, the Three Musketeers and Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale popped in my head. Okay, not all at once, but you get the idea.

After being greeted, I was quickly directed to an equipment room that houses the team’s “armoury” to properly suit up. Apparently my yoga pants and t-shirt weren’t going to cut it.

I met the resident armourer, Robert Rundle, who is also a member of the men’s foil team. Rundle’s job is to take care of the varsity team’s equipment.

“This is a plastron,” he said, as he handed me a sling-like half jacket. “It’s definitely not a fashion statement. It’s the last line of defense in the sword arm and upper arm area when you get stabbed there by the tip.”

Rundle explained the various pieces of equipment I’d be wearing. This included a Kevlar form-fitting jacket, which covers the groin and with a strap goes through the fencer’s legs, with a small neck protector. I was also told to find a helmet and a long soft-leather glove to cover my fencing hand. Being hit by a steel blade on bare skin isn’t ideal.

An important element to a competitive fencer’s uniform I didn’t have the opportunity to wear is a vest known as a Lemay, used as a scoring mechanism in competition. The contact of the tip with the vest completes an electrical circuit turning on a light, indicating a point has been scored.

Petrozza, who’s been fencing for 14 years, since he was seven, called me over to signal the beginning of my one-on-one lesson.

Petrozza said there are three events in fencing—Foil, Épée and Sabre—that use different weapons.

“Foil, it was known as a practice weapon for dueling because they would focus on the essential points in the torso and the back, hitting each point with the tip of the blade,” he said. “Épée is the dueling weapon. You can hit anywhere in the body with the tip of the blade.”

Petrozza said the third event might relate to the days of King Arthur.

“A sabre is the cavalry weapon. So, in the Napoleonic Era, the cavalry would be on their horses. Their blades are shorter by I think five inches. It is the most aggressive weapon because obviously, the target area is from the waist up because they were on horses in the cavalry. Also, you can use the whole blade, so you’re actually hacking and slashing,” he said. “It’s the fastest and most exciting event to watch.”

With that brief tutorial, it was time to bring out the swords, or so I thought. “It’s like a dance,” Petrozza said. “Footwork is very important in the sport of fencing.”

Fencing footwork is a lesson in weight transfer, requiring the fencer to move back and forth in a series of quick advances and retreats. Before handing me a sword, Petrozza had me place my feet on a 90-degree angle lunging forward and backwards to get used to the movement required of fencers.

After getting comfortable with the stance and gaining a feel for the movement, Petrozza entrusted me with the sword, which I soon discovered was another element to the dance, and I learned how to properly lunge, parry and riposte. In other words I learned how to go on the offense, defense and counter-attack. After Petrozza and I had a “duel,” complete with an “En garde!” it was time for practice to commence and I left it to the pros.

Petrozza said fencing requires a great deal of mental focus.

“A lot of people say that fencing is like running a hundred-metre dash while playing chess, because you have to react in a moment’s notice, while still being tactful in your movements and actions.”

Watching the fencers, comprised of both varsity and recreational athletes, I was surprised at how many people came out. Apparently, so were they.

“We had 12 pages of signups from the sidewalk sale and 80 people came out to the demo,” men’s Épée team captain Jack Chen said. “It’s a huge year for us.”

Like two-thirds of the members of the club, Chen said he had no prior experience before signing up for the fencing club.

He didn’t join the club with the intent to compete at a varsity level, he said.

“I ended up joining the team kind of by default because they didn’t have enough people to make a team otherwise.”

That won’t be an issue for this year’s squad as Coach Hugh Munby said he has until late December to decide which 12 men and 12 women from his club will represent Queen’s at this year’s OUA championships, hosted in mid February this year by the Carleton Ravens in Ottawa.

Mumby said over his 25 years coaching fencing at Queen’s said he has noticed a formula to a successful fencer.

“Fencing favours people who are athletes, those who have a natural aggression—controlled, of course, and those who learn well and Queen’s students tend to be good at that.”

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