The Other Kind of Fencing

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That’s Mrs. Homegrown on the left back in 2005.

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.

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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.

General Patton fencing in the 1912 Olympic games.

General Patton (on the right) fencing in the 1912 Summer Olympic games.

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.

Extreme fencing.

Extreme fencing.

Barriers
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.

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9 Comments

  1. It’s because of fencing that I got to make meet people all over the world like Geoff Russell, with whom I’ve been friends for over thirty years. We grew up in different cities, but when I went to tournaments or fencing camps, I always knew I would recognize at least one friendly face.

    I met Amy when she first started fencing here in Los Angeles. The sport didn’t come as naturally to her as it did to me or Geoff but she worked harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t surprising when she ascended on the international scene.

    Fencing gave us all a sense of identity and family. For me, I mean that literally. My mother teaches fencing and my sisters, cousins and I all competed nationally and internationally. Fencing also brought Geoff and Amy together.

    Even though I no longer fence (damn you knees!), it is part of who I am. I was reminded of this at Amy’s memorial when I was reunited with so many fencers I’ve known over the years: my first crush as a teenager whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years was there with her family as were the fencers I bonded with when I first moved to Los Angeles fresh out of college. Westside Fencing was my social life for many years as a young adult.

    I was delighted that my niece took up the sport under Geoff’s tutelage in such a welcoming environment as Fortune Fencing. I don’t know if the sport will become as an essential part of who she is as it did for me, but for now she’s enjoying it. I just wish she could have known Amy longer.

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

    • Thank you for sharing Marty. Amy and Geoff are amazing roll models for how to teach and mentor both young and old.

  2. My son fences foil on his public high school team. Whoever said it’s “chess with knives” is right. It’s a team sport for individuals. Love it. It’s always sad to lose a good coach – they have such unique roles in our lives Condolences to all of you!

  3. After decades of doing taichi chuan I am finally learning the ultimate form, spear. I suspect that it has a few things in common with fencing, as the main weapon is the point instead of a blade (although there are staff-elements to the form too.) Being a total loner means that all I can do is forms training, which is a drag as I have also studied tumbling and sparring techniques too—but cannot find anyone else who is interested in them.

    I am not surprised to hear that you are into a martial art, after hearing about your significant other’s interest in Stoicism. I have a theory that in order to sustain a life committed to environmental sustainability without falling into either “doomerism” or “denial”, most of us need some sort of “practical philosophy” to sustain ourselves. Martial arts are a sort of “physical philosophy” that allow us to generate self-discipline and provide a code to unlock the puzzles that day-to-day life provides.

    • Hey Bill,
      I was not aware of a spear form of taichi–so I Googled it and found this beautiful video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5zOMBbJ3n5E. Reminds me that I came across a group in a park nearby doing what I think is the sword form of taichi–they were sparring.

      And thank you for making the connection between stoicism and martial arts. These physical practices do indeed help us figure out the puzzles of our lives. I was reminded of this just yesterday at the fencing studio when my ego got the best of me. Good to have a reminder.

  4. Also wanted to add that on a more practical, current historical, note re Eskrima (Filipino martial arts).

    The practitioners in the U.S. were heavily involved in WWII, from the 2 Filipino Regiments out of California & Hawaii.

    After WWII, these Filipino-Am. vets continued to practice their Eskrima, as security advisers during union strikes and protests in Hawaii with the sugar industry and in CA for the UFW.

    Strategy and situation awareness from the study of martial arts, directly translates to utility within a community. It’s the same for a neighborhood–get a bunch of people together, train and the concepts of feign, triangulation, encirclement, etc. and it’s applicable from the git-go.

    • Thanks for more interesting facts about Eskrima. I’d love to watch it someday.

  5. Hi Eric and Kelly,

    Sorry to hear about the loss of your coach, and thanks for the lovely post. I so enjoy your site. My son has been doing fencing at LAIFC for 5 years – he’s 12 now. Its a really intense club — we had no idea when we got started there! I tried it a few years ago so I could practice with him and learn about it. I’m a fairly athletic person and usually pick things up pretty quickly, but after several lessons, I realized how incredibly complex it was on so many levels — so hard! Made me appreciate it so much more. Best of luck with your new sport — I commend you!

    • Hey Julie–There’s an adult epee class at Fortune on Saturday afternoons–you should join us sometime. It’s a very mellow, non-intense, non-competitive group of men and women. There’s usually just six of us. And, yeah, it’s complex. Been at it for ten years now, I think, and I still feel like a beginner.

      Good luck to your son, too.

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