Thrust and Parry, Anyone?

The joys--and health benefits--of learning to fence

Last year, during the Summer Olympics, IBM (IBM ) ran a series of black-and-white magazine ads featuring American athletes in urban settings. One showed Aki Spencer El, the top U.S. Olympic saber fencer, in New York. I took up fencing about two years ago, so I cut out the ad and taped it to my office wall.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at the schedule of bouts at the U.S. Fencing Assn. National Championships in Sacramento this past July and saw that Spencer El would be my opponent. Such is the nature of American fencing that even at the nationals, marginal swashbucklers like me can end up dueling an Olympian.

Beating one is quite another matter. By fencing twice a week, I've kept in good shape and gained some sense of balance. Slowly, I'm developing the moves and strategies that will win "touches"--points, in fencing parlance. I scored the first touch of the bout on Spencer El and let him know it with some exuberance. Then he rattled off five touches in rapid succession, dispatching me to the showers before I knew what hit me.

Fencing is not an easy sport to learn. It requires tricky footwork, leg strength, poise, and balance. Different fencing schools start beginners off differently. My club, Renaissance Fencing in Madison Heights, Mich., put a foil in my hand after I took two lessons a week for about a month. A foil, with its thin, malleable blade, is the piece of equipment most nonfencers associate with the sport. Spencer El's trainer, Peter Westbrook, who gets disadvantaged urban kids off the streets by teaching them fencing at the Peter Westbrook Foundation in Manhattan, says he gives his neophytes a sword at the second lesson.

Most clubs spend a month or two showing you the basics before any real swordplay happens. During that time, you go through the grinding process of learning fencing footwork. It's more strenuous than a few repetitions of pumping iron, or a short all-out sprint. Imagine the footwork of boxing, except you never really stand up straight, and you can't let your back foot cross in front of your forward foot.

The en garde position--which is the stance fencers keep throughout a bout--is tough to maintain at first, and puts a constant strain on your thigh and calf muscles. It requires you to partially squat with your shoulders squared up to face your opponent. You aim your front leg straight forward and your trail leg, which should be squarely under you, between 45 degrees and 90 degrees from the front leg.

STOP-AND-START. The early classes were tough because fencing is so different from the sports I grew up playing. In baseball and basketball, I was taught to lean forward in an attack position. In fencing, you keep your shoulders back.

But once you get the basics, fencing is a great diversion. With its stop-and-start pace, the workout is about as taxing as tennis. Fencers move back and forth quickly, setting up their opponent to launch a failed attack or to open the target for their own attack. Since even the best fencers give up touches, you can have a lot of intense bouts where every point counts.

Each one of the weapons--foil, épée, and saber--has its own personality. The foil, used only as a thrusting weapon, is the most popular. Since its one target--the torso--is small and you can only score with the tip, foil fencers move gracefully to set up their opponent for a touch. Westbrook compares foil to ballet.

Épée is a more classic dueling weapon. The target extends from head to toe, and the blade hardly bends. Since even tapping the épée point on the wrist scores a point, épée fencers have to calculate their moves so they don't get hit while launching an attack. The action is not as fast as with the other weapons, but involves a lot of strategy.

Saber fencing, which is my choice, has the most violent action. The target is from the waist up, and it's the only weapon that can score a touch with its point or edge. Saber fencers wear a lot of bruises, despite their layers of protection. A saber bout is as close as fencing gets to the Errol Flynn-style swordplay we've all seen in the movies. "Saber fencers are a little more wild-spirited, a little crazy," says Westbrook.

Fencing starts out pretty cheap. But costs can climb quickly. Introductory lessons range from $150 to $250 for about two months of twice weekly classes. A starter set of equipment, which includes a foil, jacket, and mask, costs about $140. Most clubs will lend novices equipment, so you don't have to buy anything until you're sure you want to stick with it.

The big bucks come into play when you graduate to more advanced levels. Foil and saber fencers wear electric jackets connected by a cord to the score box; in épée bouts, only the sword is wired. When your opponent's blade hits your jacket, the score box sounds off the touch. Competition equipment--including protective jacket, knickers, weapon, and electric jacket and mask--can be had for as little as $300. But first-rate garb and weaponry can run $1,000. You also have to factor in a club membership for $50 to $100 a month and lessons at $25 to $50 an hour.

In my view, if you like one-on-one competition and can enjoy the romance of sword fighting, fencing is worth every penny--even if you never get the chance to score a touch on an Olympian.

By David Welch

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