Forget Zorro. He wasn’t a fencer. The masked man’s swashbuckling movie scenes that capture the clatter from dueling rapiers as opponents fight on isn’t what today’s fencing is about. Today’s fencing requires one-on-one strategy, physical agility and intensity and it’s drawing the attention of students at Homewood-Flossmoor and Marian Catholic High Schools. Nationwide, interest in high school fencing has been on a steady rise the past four decades, according to the National Fencing Club.
Forget Zorro. He wasn’t a fencer.
The masked man’s swashbuckling movie scenes that capture the clatter from dueling rapiers as opponents fight on isn’t what today’s fencing is about.
Today’s fencing requires one-on-one strategy, physical agility and intensity and it’s drawing the attention of students at Homewood-Flossmoor and Marian Catholic High Schools. Nationwide, interest in high school fencing has been on a steady rise the past four decades, according to the National Fencing Club.
Marian’s program was established more than 15 years ago at the suggestion of parent Patrick Halpin of Olympia Fields, whose daughter took a basic fencing class through the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District and decided she wanted to continue with it. Halpin learned what he could and recruited Peter Lowther and Ann Jones, both of Homewood, to come help.
Lowther had fenced in college and was fencing through a Tinley Park fencing club. Jones had fenced in high school and college but been away from the sport for more than two decades.
“At the end of that first practice, I realized how much I missed just hanging out with the fencers,” she said. Jones, a librarian at Marian, has been head coach for 11 years.
“We’re all a kind of weird conglomeration of people” that under other circumstances probably wouldn’t be together, said Marian Catholic’s saber coach Erin Mueller, an English teacher at the school. “We have people who are very jock, and then we have people who are the complete opposite — very mathematical, almost nerdy. Somehow we all come together and it’s really fun.”
With 59 members, Marian’s team has reached its limit. H-F’s team has been building the past several years. Its roster is close to 50 students.
These are the only two south suburban schools with fencing teams competing in the South Division of the Great Lakes High School Fencing Conference. Meets take the teams as far north as Wisconsin and as far east as Culver, Indiana. The October through January fencing season will end Feb. 3 with conference championship play at the University of Chicago Lab School. Fencing is not an IHSA sanctioned sport.
David Greene, H-F’s fencing coach, said he played all kinds of competitive sports at Stevenson High School “and they were fun but they didn’t connect.” He learned about his school’s fencing team and after the first practice “I knew I was where I belonged.”
H-F has had a fencing team, classified a club sport, for about 15 years. The first fencing coach was Mark Watman, the man who had also taught fencing for H-F Park District.
Marian student Christiana Moraga said people are thinking fun with swords when she tells them her sport is fencing. “They tell me I’ve chosen a weird sport,” but the saber team captain disagrees.
Fencing is a sport played by individuals. There are no height or weight requirements and both boys and girls can fence. Fencing moves quickly, but fencers must learn to study an opponent and strategize the next move in a matter of seconds.
Three specialty weapons
Fencing’s roots are based on swordsmanship, but fencing today is a modern sport played competitively in high schools, colleges and universities internationally, and is a sport of the summer Olympics. It’s also a great recreational sport.
The fencer’s intent is to use his sword, called a weapon, to touch his opponent in a designated area. Each touch wins a point. Sometimes when a fencer uses proper footwork and precise lunges, a touch can be scored in as little as 5 seconds.
There are three categories of fencing: saber, foil and épée, the French word for sword. Saber allows for attacks above the waist. Épée allows for attacks only on the chest. Foil allows attacks anywhere on the body. The blades are 35.4 inches long for foil and épée and 34.6 inches for saber.
“Foil are the dancers, it’s an art form. Épée are the chess players, it’s all about strategy. Do I want to go for a double touch? Do I want to go for a single touch? It’s all about how I play the game,” Mueller said.
“Saber is just straight instinct and gut reaction. Saber moves very, very quickly. With épée and foil, each bout lasts three rounds (of five touches) and a maximum of 3 minutes,” she said of individual bouts at dual meets.
In foil and saber, the advancing opponent charging first takes the “right-of-way” and the other fencer has to defend. In épée, the fencer doesn’t necessarily charge.
Students tend to gravitate to a particular style of fencing depending on their personality, said Jones.
Greene starts his new fencers in foil to help them process the game and learn the footwork, but students will sort themselves out and find the weapon that is right for them.
Specially designed clothing protects fencers and is wired to catch a fencer’s strikes, thereby tallying points. Fencers wear conductive glove covers, called manchettes, on their fencing hands.
Their weapons have sockets. Wiring from the socket is attached to a connection in the glove. The lamé is an electrically conductive jacket worn by foil and saber fencers. The student’s lamé is tethered to a scoring box.
Épée fencers wear breeches, long sleeve jackets and vests. A plastron gives an extra layer of under-arm protection. Over a white jacket, saber fencers wear long-sleeved lamé to protect their arms and chest, and foil fencers wear lamé vests to protect the chest.
“Saber is a slashing weapon so you have to hit in the correct target area,” Mueller said. The weapons for foil and épée have a flat tip that presses in when the opponent is struck.
“Foil and épée have to push the tip hard enough so that it registers” for a point, she explained.
The face mask is meant for protection, especially for saber fencers who are allowed to strike the head. The dark mesh mask also means opponents can’t look each other in the eye.
“I don’t remember ever looking my opponent in the eye. I would look at his hands or his feet or where I wanted to hit. You can see (an opponent’s) weight shifting or hand patterns,” recalled 2008 H-F alumnus Patrick Frederickson, who serves as H-F’s assistant fencing coach. He fenced for four years while at H-F.
Marian Catholic junior Kevin Ham as been saber fencing for six years. After the Marian season ends, he will be fencing with the Northwest Indiana Fencing Club. He will compete Feb. 14, 15 and 16 at the Junior Olympics in Memphis.
Ham says being selected for the competition will put him in front of college scouts and he’ll have a better chance to be considered for college scholarship money as a fencer.
“It’s good exercise and a little bit of a tricky sport. It has its ups and downs, but I really enjoy it. It’s very technical. People call it physical chess. You play mind games against the other person. You’re not just barreling it; you really have to think about what you’re going to do.”
Danielle Jordan, a senior saber fencer at H-F, will be attending Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and has already checked with the athletic department on fencing possibilities.
“They have a club there, and I plan on keeping it running once I’m there,” she said.
“I think (fencing) was more figuring out how the hand and eye coordination works together” she added.
“Once you understand the technique behind it you get the speed. I think the more you fence and the more you learn the more confident you become and it just comes naturally.”
Oritsematosan Egbesemirone, a senior foil fencer at H-F, used his dual Nigerian and U.S. citizenship to become a member of the Nigerian fencing team. He tried out for a slot on the team over Christmas break and came in second place in the tournament.
“I was really proud about that. I planned to achieve more in fencing because I picked up on it really quick. I’m a natural fencer,” he said. He will represent Nigeria at the African championship games in March and at the world championships in Italy in April.