We Tried It: Olympic Fencing

Emma Frankart Henterly
Julia Richey, far right, coaches the writer during a fencing class at Royal Arts Sport Fencing Academy.

On a Monday evening at Royal Arts Sport Fencing Academy on the East Side, I follow founder Julia Richey into the armory, where we review the three types of Olympic fencing weapons: foil, épée and sabre. Richey asks what I later learn is her divining question to match personalities with weapons: Do I like to think before I act, after I act or not at all?

The question has barely left her lips before I blurt my answer: I’m not a patient person. She smiles and hands me a foil.

Foil fencing is about quick action and analyzing the opponent’s response, Richey explains. Épée involves more setup, with fencers assessing each other before striking. Sabre “is just ready, go, boom,” she says, making a slashing sound and a chopping motion. “The person who hits, wins.”

Next comes protective gear: a plastic breastplate, jacket, glove and face mask. Competitive fencers also wear special pants and shoes, but I’m not outfitted with those. I’m glad—the jacket and mask alone are stifling.

Richey has me take practice stabs at a target, gently correcting me when my stance is off. The resting position, en garde, reminds me of Warrior Two in yoga. I’m in a sideways half-squat, half-lunge. My left hand stays behind me, the fingers of my right hand holding the blade just so.

I’m paired with 15-year-old Ella Feinberg to learn the basics. I’m hesitant, afraid I’ll hurt her. She has no such reservation. I’m vastly overmatched and it shows, but Feinberg is sympathetic, allowing me to make contact once or twice.

Then I’m paired with Ben Anglin. He’s also 15 and shows no mercy as he scores point after point.

“Lunge! You can do it!” Richey shouts, but my quads are spent after nearly an hour of en garde. Sweat is streaming down my face behind the mask. I back Anglin to the edge of the strip, the sport’s boundary, and make a final, desperate attempt to score. He deflects with grace and swoops in for the winning point before I can blink.

When it’s over, I’m breathless and soaked in sweat. Richey extolls the virtues of the sport for its cardio and muscle-strengthening exercise as I gulp the last drops of water from my bottle.

She then informs me that I’ve just completed the entire introductory series at Royal Arts, which is typically four hour-long classes. Those who want to continue can get a membership and attend open fencing in the evenings. There are classes for kids as young as 5, as well as adult classes on historical weapons, katana and even the Star Wars-esque lightsaber (also available for kids).

Lightsaber uses the same core skills as fencing and other swordplay disciplines, says Tim Mills, who coaches the class. Some adults take the lightsaber classes just for fun, Richey adds, but many eventually pick up the Olympic sport or, more commonly, join the lightsaber choreography troupe, which performs in costume at events around the region.

Lightsaber sounds intriguing, but I’m drawn more to Olympic fencing. I think Richey notices; she insists that, with practice, I’ll be ready for the Arnold Fencing Classic next year. I’m not so sure about that, but I’ve signed up for the proper introductory classes. At the very least, it’ll be a killer workout.


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