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Fencing Beginners Encouraged to Test Their Steel

By Brian Chase

Many sights and sounds can be heard in evenings in the Du Pont Gymnasium. One of these is the sound of metal on metal as the Fencing team trains. The Fencing team has been around for decades, as established a sport at MIT as Crew or Baseball. Despite this long history, however, the fencing squad is a varsity team that recruits half its members from the ranks of students who have never fenced before.

Eleven of 17 women’s team members last year and 8 out of 16 men’s fencing team members joined the sqaud with no experience, said Lele Yu ’06, women’s Fencing team captain. It makes sense when you consider that fencing is not a widespread sport across the country. The fencing team encourages beginner fencers to try out for the team, Yu said; in fact, the current Men’s Fencing team captain came in with no experience. In some ways, beginners to fencing have an advantage, as they have not acquired bad habits that must be untaught, as Yu learned from personal experience.

Fencing includes three different sports, which use three different swords and styles of swordplay. In Epee, any part of the opponent’s body is a target, so matches are slow, and it’s important to try to outmaneuver your opponent to isolate a weakness.

In Sabre, the target is above the waist, and if both fencers hit each other, the person who began to strike first is given the point. So matches are quick affairs of two people running and striking each other, each trying to be faster than the other.

In Foil, the target is the torso, and as in Sabre, the first strike is favored, so it plays a faster than Epee, though not as fast as Sabre. In a match at a meet, two teams of three people fence nine times, where each member fences against each opposing member, and the team winning the most pairings wins the match.

Unlike some other sports, Fencing has active tryouts at the beginning of the year to fill its roster. However, people who have never fenced before don’t need to worry.

“What we look for during tryouts is more the commitment, the dedication than anything else. We don’t actually fence during tryouts … what we see there is whether or not you come everyday, whether or not you display the effort,” Yu said.

The team has hard member cutoffs, however. There are only 20 spots for women and men, and Yu reports that about 30 people try out every year, including returning members. If a student thinks he might be interested in trying fencing, the squad recommends showing up to tryouts rather than trying to join after taking the PE class.

While the fencing team willingly takes people on the team with no experience, it expects commitment from them as well. Fencing practices weekdays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and as Yu reported, attendance is expected.

There are good reasons for this required practice time. First among them is the development of the specialized group of muscles on which fencing relies. Yu said, “Fencing has a lot of really weird muscles … you don’t really have a symmetric body if you fence.” Practices include footwork and individual lessons to get fencers into shape, she added. They also help ensure that every team member receives personalized coaching tips from either Head Coach Jarek Koniusz or one of the assistant coaches.

The MIT Fencing Club is typically quite competitive, both within their conference, and on a national level, where for the last several years the squad has placed about 20th out of 33 squads competing, Yu said. Additionally, the Women’s Sabre has deep roots at MIT, as one of its first national champions, Caroline Purcell, started fencing here. And as long as the there are eager beginners ready to join, the team can likely keep that trend going.