Fencing is not what you expect. I have to say that since I started fencing four years ago, it has not been what I expected either.
Fencing requires agility, speed, strength and endurance. Cary Elwes never broke a sweat in “The Princess Bride,” but when you’re wearing a Kevlar jacket and long pants in a gym without air conditioning in Atlanta in the middle of the summer, it doesn’t work like that. Trust me.
Even more surprising to me, however, is that I haven’t gotten bored. The more I practice, the more the intricacies of the sport begin to unfold. Fencing is aptly named “physical chess” because each action, no matter how subtle, is part of a larger strategic game designed to deceive and play on the weaknesses of your opponent. Coach Henry Harutunian draws an analogy to the art of strategic deception, commanding his students to “rock the baby, rock the baby, kill the baby!”
But developing technique, not to mention smarts, takes years. Coach insists that you have over a million options for each touch and has no problem rattling them off in a way reminiscent of Bubba’s different ways of cooking shrimp in “Forrest Gump.” After four years of intense training, I’ve worked up to about three of these that I can actually do well. I’m hoping to add a fourth to my repertoire by the end of the season.
When I started fencing, I assumed I was forsaking the collective victory of team sports for personal glory. I soon came to understand that although it is an individual sport, it cannot be practiced alone. After all, the fun is having someone there to hit.
I recently completed my second season on the Yale women’s fencing team, and I am proud to say that I have inflicted, as well as received, many bruises from my teammates. As we fought our way to an undefeated Ivy League championship this year, there was an intense level of concentration going into each match that I had never experienced on any other team. We were successful because we brought a connected, concentrated energy to every competition that came from working hard, not just for ourselves, but to help our teammates improve as well.
Varsity college fencing is unique because the small, coed teams bring together world champions and walk-ons in an intimate competitive environment. All athletes can share their strengths in a way that might not be possible on a larger team. International circuit competitors bring knowledge and skills, while walk-ons bring energy and new ideas.
Freshman year is a time when many students are looking for something new that they couldn’t get in high school. Harutunian welcomes dedicated beginners, whether you want to fence “for God, for Country and for Yale,” or just experience a new sport.
Sada Jacobson ’04 is a two-time Ivy League champion and NCAA champion in the women’s saber.