Robyn Shaffer ’13 is an epeeist on the women’s fencing team and is currently serving as the team’s captain for the second consecutive season. The Nashville, Tenn. native, who was originally a walk-on, placed 12th at the NCAA Northeast Regionals her sophomore year and was an Academic All-Ivy selection last season. The women’s fencing team opened its season last weekend at the Garret Open at Penn State, where Shaffer and two of her fellow Bulldogs earned top 16 finishes.
Q: When did you begin fencing?
A: The first time I picked up a blade was fourth grade. It was an after school program at my school, one of those programs that keeps kids until 4:00 so your parents can stay at work. I thought it was fun and I just never stopped.
Q: When did you realize you would have an opportunity to fence at the collegiate level?
A: It wasn’t until second semester junior year when I started really looking at colleges and I thought, “Oh, I can keep doing this.” I actually wasn’t a recruit — I’m a walk-on. I spoke with different coaches both in the spring of my junior year and over the summer and talked to them about what life would be like on a varsity athletic team. But ultimately I got in on my own.
Q: Can you give a brief overview of the different weapons in fencing?
A: There are three weapons. The difference between the weapons is the target area, where you’re allowed to hit. Secondary to that, there are also differences in the rules. The weapon I fence is epee, where you can hit anywhere on the body. The other two weapons are foil, where the target area is the torso and the lower part of the neck, and saber, where the target area is just the upper body.
Q: How do fencers choose which weapon they fence with?
A: Sometimes it’s based on body type. If you’re tall or if you’re a little faster that might give you an advantage in one weapon or another. Sometimes it’s just based on the availability of coaches. I shouldn’t be an eppeist because I’m short. Epeeists are normally tall, but the only coach in my area was an epee coach, so that’s what I did.
Q: What attributes make a good fencer?
A: Fencers have to be quick. A single bout is three minutes long, so you have to be quick, but you also have to be quick-thinking. Coaches will describe fencing as physical chess. Half of it is physical but the other half is strategic and mental, being smart on the strip.
Q: What is a typical fencing practice like?
A: We start off with warm-up and stretching just like any other team. We’ll do footwork and drilling, which is more technique-based, and then we’ll do competitive bouting where we split up into our weapons and fence a five-touch bout.
Q: Last year you were named team captain as a junior. What was it like being in a role where you were expected to lead seniors?
A: It was daunting at the beginning but everyone was incredibly supportive. The captains are elected by the team so I wouldn’t be there unless the team wanted me to be. The seniors were incredibly helpful, and we worked together to lead the rest of the team.
Q: Overall, how would you describe your leadership style?
A: I’m very communicative. I probably send an email a day. I like to be involved, which may be a good thing or a bad thing. We’re a team that values academics above nearly anything else — my coach will tell you that — so I try to stay up-to-date on how everyone is doing academically.
Q: What do you think are realistic expectations for the team this year?
A: I think this year’s team is probably at a similar technical level as last year. We lost a few great seniors and we gained a few great freshmen. That being said, team spirit, energy and confidence in competition can boost us higher than our technical skill level in practice.
Q: If you were attacked on the street and you had your epee, could you defend yourself?
A: I like to think I could scare someone off, but fencing has a very rigid set of rules. I move in one direction with very specific footwork so maybe if my attacker followed all those rules I’d have a good chance.