While Yale fencing head coach Henry Harutunian has coached the men’s and women’s squads for 41 years, his greatest desire for this season is to maintain the teams’ three-year standing as the varsity teams with the highest average grade point averages.
Fencing does not have a large group of followers nationally or within the Yale community, and Yale Athletics does not heavily fund the program. Even as an athletic coach long devoted to his sport, Harutunian often prioritizes his players’ academic endeavors over their athletic commitments, women’s team captain Robyn Shaffer ’12 said. But the team’s academic priorities have not stopped the Bulldogs from achieving distinction in this oft-ignored yet historic sport.
This season, Yale has its eyes on the Ivy championships. The No. 10 men’s team is especially eager not to repeat last year’s disappointing Ivy finish, in which the Elis lost the title to Harvard by only one point in the final 20 seconds of the season.
“If we keep up the good teamwork, we definitely have the potential for a successful season,” Peter Cohen ’14, an All-American épéeist last season, said.
While students generally know that Yale has a fencing team, three team members said they feel Yalies rarely follow the varsity sport. Cohen said he thinks the main reason fencing is not dominant in campus converstaion is that the rules are so confusing.
“People just say it is cool, but they do not seem to be clear about what is going on exactly,” Cohen said.
Yale fencing dates back to 1894 and began making waves in the 1920s. On the seventh floor of the Payne Whitney Gym, where the Eli fencers practice from 4 to 6 p.m. on a daily basis, the walls are plastered with 70 years of photos of Yale fencing.
Unlike other sports, the men’s and women’s squads are meshed into one and practice together, which Cohen said helps foster overall team dynamics. Both teams travel together, and upperclassmen on each team go out of their way to help younger members, team members said.
“Being on the team, there was no need for me to rush for sorority since all the teammates are like my sisters,” Shaffer said.
One of the most unique features of Yale fencing is the recruitment process itself. Unlike sports such as football, swimming and track, which recruit heavily throughout the season, fencing relies heavily on walk-ons in the fall. Each team typically has only two recruits come to Yale each year. Harutunian said in an email that most of the fencers who walk onto the team have some experience fencing but not on a “competitive level,” and some are even new to the sport.
“[The walk-on system] is unique to Yale in the Ivy League,” Harutunian added. “The inherent learning process for both individual fencers and the team as a whole may not bring too many victories, but in the long run, we are establishing something that students can take into their later lives.”
Players interviewed differed in their reasons to start fencing and join the team at Yale.
Cohen said fencers have “a lot of weird stories” about how they got into fencing. He was introduced to the sport in eighth grade, when his sister, who was attending Yale at the time, brought a fencer friend, Michael Pearce ’10, home for dinner.
“Recently, I beat [Pearce] in an alumni match, which I thought was funny,” Cohen said.
In fencing, there is no overwhelming popularity for a specific weapon. Instead, body features and starting age usually help a player decide what weapon to fence with. For tall, lean players like Cohen, épée is the most suitable weapon, as height allows épéeists to hit when a shorter opponent cannot strike back. Unlike foil and sabre fencers, épéeists can land touches on any part of the body, so long arms allow them to gain points while staying at a distance.
Fencers who start early tend to take up foil, as they will have more time to hone their skills at this most-competitive weapon.
Regardless of their weapons or the skills they come in with, Yale fencers hone their abilities with the help of a coach who is considered the essence of Yale fencing, both Shaffer and men’s captain Shiv Kachru ’12said.
“Although there are famous figures like Sada Jacobson ’06 who won three medals in the Olympics, Harutunian is the true inspiration of our entire team,” Kachru said.
Sparse funding for this lesser-known sport is one issue with which the coach continues to grapple. Since 1970, he has made a continuous effort to keep the team’s budget rational and economical.
“We never want to go overboard, but at the same time we want to be capable of staying at a competitive level,” Harutunian said.
In addition to strong leadership from the coach, the fencing captains are also an important asset to the team’s success. At the end of each season, captains — who are responsible for arranging practices, coordinating with the coach and working with the team manager — are elected by vote at a team banquet. According to men’s captain Kachru, the most successful candidates are experienced players with strong results. Developing connections with all the players and ensuring none takes disappointing games to heart are key criteria for a captain, he added.
The Elis are hoping strong leadership and training will help them take the Ivy title this season.
Last weekend, the No. 10 men’s team had to swallow a close loss to No. 9 Sacred Heart, at home.
Both teams will compete against Vassar this Saturday in Payne Whitney Gym at 1 p.m.