Foiled by the flourish

The Queen’s Fencing Club brings romance back to athletics

When engaging in a match, fencing opponents must abide by the code of conduct.
When engaging in a match, fencing opponents must abide by the code of conduct.

As I entered the gym at Duncan McArthur Hall last week, the clashing sounds of cold steel signalled an evening of competitive camaraderie.

Here at the Queen’s Fencing Club’s practice, value isn’t placed on size or strength, but on mental endurance and light-speed reaction time.

Something about this sport is magical, creating an atmosphere of hair-splitting tactics involving flourishes and reposes, parries and counters.

The nature of fencing, Jimmy Wintle, M.Ed ’10, explained, involves such a precise amount of defence and offence that scoring can be a matter of a few fractions of an inch.

“In fencing there are three different disciplines: Foil, Épée and Sabre,” Wintle, who has been captaining the men’s team for the past five years, said. “Each of them has a different target and slightly different rules but essentially it’s based on the Western martial art of sword fighting.”

This has proven to be a large draw for beginners. Wintle acknowledged, however, that fencing’s strict rules and code of conduct can feel restraining to those who join under the misconception of violence.

“We definitely have a lot of people coming out and for them it is like fulfilling a fantasy,” he said, “but sword fighting is not a sport, and fencing is not sword fighting. So we do ensure that people learn the right technique.”

Wintle explained that the rules and technique are in place for safety, as many people join fencing to satisfy a desire to play with swords.

Giving me a tutorial on the basics of these techniques, Wintle showed me how to shimmy back and forth so that my legs never crossed over each other, keeping them bent at all times. Soon he had me lunging forth and I felt my legs push off the gym floor like a spring.

The lunge to strike an opponent is a stretch — it’s a full body effort so that the fencer reaches with not only his sword, but with his entire body.

Wintle explained the importance of repose, a sort of counter-move where a fencer can deflect their attacker and strike back at their opponent.

I soon learned the action of fencing is as physically taxing as it is mentally.

“There is a certain amount of precision required in fencing, but like any sport if you put the time and dedication into it, you can certainly pick up on the rules and technique easily,” Wintle said.

Once I had begun to spar with him, I immediately realized that fencing is not easy in the least.

Wintle later told me that I had been holding the foil wrong. My hand had to face up with my forefinger and thumb gripping the handle tightly, hand pointed to the ceiling.

He showed me the proper way of striking with a foil — a direct thrust forward. He said a fencer should only do this if they are certain they have a chance to strike and gain points.

Fencing head coach Hugh Munby, who has held the post since 1985, said the rules and the code of conduct ensure that the team holds up a standard of excellence.

“It is the only Olympic sport in which a weapon is used and the target is the human body.” Munby said. “There’s a code of conduct which involves saluting, and the salute is formalized and it has to be done properly.”

The salute, which involves a flourish of the sword brought up in front of the athlete’s face and back down to attention, Munby explained, is done to show that the match is solely for the sake of sport. Opponents salute each other, the audience and the judges.

In a sport that’s primarily about striking and slashing your opponent, a tremendous amount of effort goes into making sure that everything is done according to the code.

“It has a certain romance to it and you know, there is a finesse in the sport that you don’t find in the other sports — you don’t find it in body contact sports much,”he said.

Munby said that the sport is instinctual and tactical, requiring its athletes to be confident and in good mental shape.

What seemed at first a passionate expression of violence, turned out to be a tentative waiting game of strategy, focus and mental endurance.

My dreams of being the next Captain Jack Sparrow had been swiftly crushed.

“In Pirates of The Caribbean,” Munby said, “they have to move slowly. Otherwise you can’t see it — a stage fight has to be slow. If you fenced that slow 200 years ago in the streets of Paris, you’d be dead.”

My illusions of grandeur quashed, it seemed that Hollywood had steered me wrong.

While fencing is a serious sport, everything I had come to understand as fencing on the stage and screen was false.

Fencing is anything but brutish, Épée division captain Kristian Kraemer, Sci ’17, explained.

“When it comes to a real fight, fencing is probably about as useful as ballet,” he said. While fencing may not carry the harshness of sword fighting, Kraemer said competitive energies can rise during a match.

“When people are actually in the heat of competition or a bout, then their tensions run pretty high,” he said. “Fencing usually gets a rep as a gentlemanly type of sport ... it’s not.”

Although it involves weaponry, Kraemer said the strategic sport has a fairly low injury rate relative to other sports.

“Pretty much the worst thing you’ll see is like knees and ankles ... but besides that you don’t see any serious injuries, so that’s a good thing,” he said.

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