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On the strip
If spectators entering the Plex on December 5 for the second annual fencing Beanpot (Boston College, Brandeis, Harvard, and MIT) were expecting a swashbuckling spectacle, they were likely surprised—and at times perplexed—by what they saw: a series of exchanges so fast and so brief that one had to check a digital scoring console to know the outcome.
One of the nine original sports of the modern Olympic Games, fencing has evolved from its dueling origins into three highly refined divisions, each defined by the weapon used: foil, which has a somewhat flexible, narrow rectangular steel blade roughly 35 inches long; epee, with a stiffer and heavier blade; and sabre, which has the lightest blade, well suited to the slashing motions of this discipline. “Because each weapon has different tactics, each tends to attract different physical and emotional types,” says Syd Fadner, who has been coaching the 28-member (12 women and 16 men) Boston College fencing team since 1991, the year it was founded.
The foil is a thrusting weapon. A point is scored by recording a touch with the end of the blade on an opponent’s torso—the vital area 18th-century fencers would have been trained to hit—and bouts are governed by right-of-way rules that determine which fencer is eligible to score. Reflecting their historical link to the cavalry, sabre fencers may score anywhere from the waist up, including the head, and the right-of-way rules encourage aggressive attacking. In epee, as in foil, points can be scored only with the tip of the blade, but there are neither right-of-way rules nor defined target areas. That simplicity is what attracted Adam Berkland ’09 to epee when he started fencing in high school in Minnesota. “It’s a lot more like an actual duel,” he says. “If you get stabbed, you can’t say ‘well, I had the parry, so I shouldn’t be dead.'” Rhode Islander Sjur Hoftun ’11, on the other hand, relishes the rules of foil. “There’s more strategy involved,” he says. “In foil, you can develop a few moves in advance.”
One trait all three disciplines share is the furious speed of the action. Because of this, points are registered electronically. Each weapon is wired, with a cord running from the grip through the fencer’s uniform and, via a long retractable cord, to the scoring console. Foils and epees feature a button at the tip of the blade that must be depressed to score a touch; the entire blade of a sabre is electrified. Because foil and sabre rules define target areas on the fencers, competitors wear electrically wired clothing that registers hits. Sabre fencers’ helmets are similarly wired.
Fencing may seem like an individual sport, but there is a strong sense of camaraderie among BC’s combatants. Hoftun recalls a match last season in which the Eagles staged an unlikely comeback against Yale. “The whole team gathered around the strip to cheer me on. In a situation like that, if you’re not with it, you’re doing a disservice to everyone else.” Hoftun won his bout handily.
Read more by Tim Czerwienski