Most of Payne Whitney’s visitors don’t venture too far above the confines of the fourth floor Israel “Ace” Fitness Center. Some may make their way up to a studio on the fifth floor, and fewer still trek to the sixth floor. But hardly anyone goes to the seventh floor.
That is, except for the women’s varsity fencing team.
Sequestered in the dingy, slightly odorous, isolated fencing room these Elis, who practice daily alongside their male counterparts under the instruction of head coach Harry Harutunian, give hitting each other with swords the appearance of choreographed movements. Like every varsity sport, the women’s team has a private locker room. Like every varsity sport, the University provides equipment, uniforms and shoes for the fencers. But unlike every varsity sport, hardly anyone understands and appreciates the art of fencing, and it never garners the same attention as some of the others. But that does not seem to faze Eli fencers.
“No matter what, it’s not a big sport in the U.S.,” women’s captain Erica Korb ’05 said. “We don’t have half of Yale coming out to watch the games. That’s just what fencing is.”
Outside of Yale, however, the Bulldogs have earned their fair share of recognition.
“We have a really good team,” epeeist Serena Hines ’07 said. “We have the world’s number one saberist [Sada Jacobson ’06], people who have gone to the Olympics. It’s really not like Yale publicity matters.”
The team has proven just this. It regularly endures all sorts of hardships. Recruits quit. Novices bout competitively. There is only one senior, Zane Selkirk ’04, who just recently returned from an injury. But some argue that the strength of the team has merely grown.
“I didn’t really expect this going to college, but it turns out that the team thing was really good for me,” Korb said. “The team really is a good group of people. It makes it worth the sore muscles and the big time commitment.”
Like every varsity sport, the fencers practice five times a week, in addition to lifting weights twice a week with strength and conditioning coach Mike Ranfone, and taking at least one hour of private lessons a week with Harutunian to perfect their art.
And it certainly is an art. Amidst all the chaos and disorder, panting, occasional laughing and coughing, it seems almost as if the haphazard motions had somehow been designed before performed.
That is exactly how Harutunian wants it. He coaches his players using expertise, dedication and animated style.
“Faster-ba BA! Yeah, yeah, yeah, uh-huh!” Harutunian yells as he gives Korb her private lesson.
Harutunian and Korb continue in their drills, rhythmically step-touching back and forth. Korb, connected by a wire to a wall unit behind her that controls the sensor in her epee sword, lunges at Harutunian and retreats. Harutunian sounds instructions and praise.
“Beautiful! I like it! Scratch, scratch, scratch,” Harutunian’s heavily-accented Armenian voice calls from under his mask.
Harutunian’s experience is extensive — 33 years at Yale, head coaching the Republic of Armenia’s team in 1963, numerous awards and accolades.
“I want everything not accident,” Harutunian says. “Everything planned.”
As if by magic, Harutunian’s words seem to dictate the motions of the fencers during their daily afternoon practice. Surrounded by current teammates and pictures of the teams that proceeded them, they sinuously flow from one motion to the next. During the footwork warm-ups, the fencers, without swords, uniforms, or opponents, focus on their lunges and retreats. Their eyes pierce their invisible adversaries. It is hard to believe there is not a master puppeteer controlling their bodies, from their pointed fingers, simulating swords, down to their unevenly developed quadriceps.
Lined up in two columns, the fencers respond to Harutunian’s bellows from the front of the room.
“Small lunge, recover. Medium lunge, recover. Big lunge, recover. Seven times,” Harutunian says, speaking his words in rhythm as a ballet teacher speaks to her students.
As they lunge toward the middle of the room, two lines coming at each other, the pulse of pounding feet and balanced poses gives the practice an odd serenity. The next set of lunge exercises, in which the two lines splay out diagonally and lunge down the line, creating a football-style fan wave. One of the lines miscounts its lunges and continues the domino of legs shooting out towards the center of the room, past its intended stopping point.
“Very good!” Harutunian says. “Some people enthusiastic — want to do more. Beautiful!”
After its half hour of footwork, the team takes time to suit up. Uniforms vary by the type of fencing performed: epee, sabre and foil. But all uniforms begin with a white suit — one of the vestiges of the olden days. Before the weapons had electric sensors to detect a hit, the tips of swords were covered in charcoal. The grey slashes across the stark white suits represented each point in a bout.
While suiting up, the team casually chats and couples began to stand out in the crowd. This type of team camaraderie is another thing that is unique to the fencers, whose men’s and women’s teams not only practice but also travel together.
“We have a few team couples,” women’s manager Katie Burghardt ’05 said. “There’s drama when team couples split. It gets very messy. We had one split at the end of last season and we all just felt awkward about it.”
Nevertheless, the complexities of team relationships and having the men around add to making the allusive fencing team its own mysterious entity. The beauty of the art, the relative anonymity of the team, eclectic coach Harutunian and precise planning that goes into each retreat and flesh, distinguishes it from any other at Yale.
In some ways, the Bulldogs take on the persona of what Harutunian described as an ideal fencer — one who will win all her matches.
“It should not be apparent what you are doing,” Harutunian said. “Not a person should understand what you’re doing. Do something so quick, so fast. Be a mystery.”