It was with great sadness that we got the news of the passing of our fencing coach Amy Fortune in April. Both Kelly and I were lucky to have taken many lessons with Amy. She was one of those teachers that bring unexpected and valuable life lessons far beyond the topic at hand. She was patient, encouraging and always positive. We miss her very much and send our condolences to her husband Geoff, also an amazing fencing coach.
When I walked into my first lesson with Amy, many years ago, she said that if she were to build a fencing robot from scratch it would look like me: tall and gangly. Unfortunately, what Amy did not know is that I lacked even a shred of natural athletic talent. Which is precisely why I’ve become obsessed with this sport. It offers me a chance to work on things I’m terrible at: strategy, mindfulness, flexibility, speed and endurance.
In the US, fencing is a very marginal sport. On a daily basis calls come into the fencing studio asking for bids on chain link. To add to the confusion it’s actually three incompatible sports in one: foil, epee and saber. Each have different rules. The rules of foil and saber are too complicated for me so I took up epee. Epee is the dueling sword. It’s hit or be hit. The entire body is a valid target area. The blade has a switch on the end and when it makes contact with your opponent a light goes off. If the hit comes within 1/25 of a second of your opponent’s hit both sides score a point. The action takes place on a narrow strip measuring 14 meters.
Fencing has a chess like quality, that reminds me of a line in Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, “feints within feints within feints.” Every action unleashes a set of branching possibilities. If you’re “in the zone” you intuitively anticipate counters and counters to the counters. You’re forced to think ahead of your opponent. And you have to be strategic. You must ask, who is this person I’m facing and what is their personality? You learn how to set traps, use deception and misdirection. The older you get the more you must rely on your mind over quick reflexes. And you have to learn non-attachment. As soon as a strategy fails to work you must drop it in an instant. As someone with a naive disposition, it’s been a reminder that sometimes life is a struggle and not everyone is dealing with you on the square and level. Let’s just say that every time I have to interact with a politician, I’m reminded of fencing.
The mind games of fencing require intense concentration and I often find myself both physically and mentally exhausted. It unifies mind and body in a workout that has been studied for its benefits to cognitive functioning in older people.
An ad for a Ukrainian fencing studio.
A healthy alternative to video games
I asked a high school student in our club why he chose this oddball sport. He said, “I was playing too many video games and my parents made me do it.” He ended up loving and being very good at fencing. And, indeed, the sport does have the qualities of a video game: electronic scoring and multiple lives. But unlike a video game you’re getting exercise. And, apparently, it’s one of the easiest sports to get an athletic scholarship.
I’ve also come to appreciate the sternness of the sport. At competitions there’s no finisher’s medal. When you lose you, well, lose. And I do a whole lot of losing. At Amy’s memorial service one of the parents spoke about how Amy taught us all how to deal with disappointment. Amy also taught us persistence. No matter how far behind, you have to keep going. I’ve found that these lessons learned give me confidence and strength off of the fencing strip. The sport also has an old world civility. Every match, even casual ones at the club, begin with a salute and end with another salute and a handshake. It teaches you to not take disputes personally.
Most importantly, fencing has forced me to address my knee problems. I quit the sport back in 2008 due largely to a bad case of runner’s knee caused both by fencing and running. When I returned to fencing in 2012 I managed to re-injure myself. But this time around I made a decision I should have made years ago: I hired a personal trainer at the YMCA to deal with my knees. She helped me strengthen my legs, hips and core to take the pressure off my joints. After many hours at the gym I was able to return to fencing and running. The pain still comes back at times but I’ve got it under control. The experience highlighted a problem with fitness culture these days: it tends to emphasize weight loss and body building. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those goals, but I think exercise is best thought of as something that improves mobility and quality of life.
Of all the crazy activities Kelly and I have taken up, Fencing is the one with the steepest learning curve. It can be maddeningly frustrating. And there’s an initial investment in the uniform and lessons. For schools the scoring equipment is expensive and difficult to maintain. I fear that someday it will be dropped from the Olympics due to its complexity and the unsexiness of the head to toe uniforms. That said, I hope the sport will grow in popularity. It has a lot to offer.
Fencing around the world
Nearly every culture in the world has some form of fencing. There’s the Zen art of Kendo, of course. And Bruce Lee incorporated western fencing moves into his Jeet Kune Do system. A Root Simple reader who teaches martial arts locally reminded me of Eskrima–Filipino stick fighting. I admire Eskrima’s simplicity. All you need are two sticks and lessons are typically conducted informally in backyards.
Then there’s Haitian machete fencing which I had never heard of until I ran across this trailer for a upcoming documentary on the subject. Could machete fencing be the perfect synthesis of gardening and martial arts?
What did I leave out? I know many Root Simple readers are passionate about martial arts. Which one have you tried and what benefit did it have for you?
If you’re in the LA area and would like to try fencing for yourself of your child I can’t think of a better place to start than Fortune Fencing. It’s a supportive and friendly atmosphere.