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The Art of Fencing

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

“Marvelous” Sport Enjoys Growing Popularity

By Justin Feil

Long before Paul Epply-Schmidt was a repeat national fencing champion, he grew up pretending to fight.

“At the very young level, you did what I did,” said Epply-Schmidt. “Kids play with sticks and trash can lids, and you think you’re a medieval knight or musketeer. Lots of kids play with things that are supposed to be swords.”

Fencing evolved into a sport out of a war form centuries ago and spread from Europe to North America and Asia. The United States is stronger than ever internationally in the sport as it continues to grow in large part due to increasing youth numbers. New Jersey, which has produced many Olympians, is particularly strong nationally. Fencing clubs and the Princeton YMCA offer local training opportunities for beginners to competitive fencers of all ages and backgrounds.

“What I liked about fencing was you didn’t have to be a particular size or shape,” said Epply-Schmidt. “There are lots of people all kinds of sizes and shapes that find ways to make it work for them. There’s no end to how you can win if you know what to do. It doesn’t matter if you’re 5-feet tall or 6-feet tall or 200 pounds. I really think that’s one of the great things about it.”

Epply-Schmidt, 62, has been fencing competitively for more than 50 years, and coaching for more than three decades. The Princeton resident fences for Bucks County Academy of Fencing (BCAF) in Lambertville and is one of nine instructors at Sebastiani Fencing Academy in Princeton. After retiring last June from teaching and coaching at Princeton Day School for 33 years, Epply-Schmidt won men’s foil, one of the three fencing weapons, in the 60-69 Veterans age division at the 2022 USA Fencing National Championships last July in Minneapolis, Minn. It was his second straight year at the top of the podium. The win qualified him to represent the United States at the 2022 Veteran World Fencing Championships in Zadar, Croatia, last October.

“I’ve been trying to get on the U.S. team for years,” said Epply-Schmidt. “On the third time, I finally got to compete.”

A family emergency forced him to miss his first time after qualifying for worlds in 2014 in men’s foil 50-59, and the COVID-19 pandemic cost him his second chance in 2021. But his third time was the charm with a seventh-place finish in the world championship. He could go for a third straight title this summer at the national championships in Phoenix, Ariz.

“I see these guys in their 70s and 80s still fencing there,” said Epply-Schmidt. “You get a sheet when you win and you take it up to the bout committee to score it, and they’re just as excited as any 20-year-old. It’s really kind of fun.”

Sebastiani Coach Paul Epply-Schmidt. (Photo by Sebastiani Fencing Academy)

The sport’s governing body, USA Fencing, has welcomed enormous growth in the last 40 years, particularly among young fencers, and New Jersey, which has the largest division of USA Fencing, is among the top areas to fence thanks to a long history of high school programs and strong instruction from European fencing masters who immigrated to the area and brought their expertise to clubs. A USA Fencing release states that the country had only 50 members under the age of 15 in the early 1980s. That age range has closer to 15,000 now and is on the rise again after COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted.

“Any time a movie comes out that involves any swordplay we get a little bit of a bump in attendance, whether it’s Star Wars, The Mark of Zorro, or The Three Musketeers,” said Mark Holbrow. “Also, when the Olympics are on, and they show fencing on television, we usually get a bump up in sign-ups.”

Holbrow is founder and fencing master at BCAF, which also has a location in Hatfield, Pa. When the former Princeton University assistant coach opened BCAF at its original location in New Hope, Pa., in January 1981, it was the only game in town, and even nationally there were very few fencing clubs. He’s watched more people discover the sport and more opportunities open.

“It’s a fascinating sport,” said Holbrow. “It’s a great strategy sport. It’s got the reputation of being the chess game of the athletic arena. It’s great exercise, and it’s great fun and it has a fabulous history and it’s a good individual sport. And being an indoor sport, you can do it year-round.”

Sebastiani Fencing Academy (SFA), named for former Princeton University and U.S. Olympic team coach Michael Sebastiani, opened in Princeton in 2000. Like BCAF, it now has around 200 members. SFA offers a range of classes from beginners (nicknamed “Little Musketeers”) to veterans, any fencer aged 40 or older. Some in their 70s and 80s have returned to the sport after decades-long breaks. Others are parents who signed up their children to fence, but then tried the sport themselves.

A lesson with Maitre Sebastiani. (Photo by Sebastiani Fencing Academy)

“We have an adult class that meets on Friday and has a blast,” said Sebastiani owner and founder Gabrielle Roux. “Whether they’re pure beginners or did it in college and realized it is available to them, they really enjoy it. Some people get tired with their usual workout and going to the gym and say, ‘fencing is an amazing workout and it’s fun.’”

Swordplay goes back thousands of years to a depiction in a relief found in an Egyptian temple built by Ramses III in 1190 BCE. Swords were commonly used by ancient Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans and remained popular in warfare and as a way to settle disputes violently through the Middle Ages until the 14th century. The German fencing guild Marxbrüder led a training movement that swept across Europe in the 15th century before the Italians’ emphasis on using the point of the sword rather than the blade helped develop fencing into a more skilled form of fighting. Late in the 17th century, the French ushered in a new form of dress that necessitated the use of a shorter rapier.

In the second half of the 18th century Domenico Angelo extolled fencing as a graceful form of exercise and sport rather than combat. The Italian fencing master opened a fencing school in London that catered to aristocrats and notably accepted women. His 1763 book L’École des armes (The School of Fencing) outlined and importantly illustrated fencing form still in use today. Masks also were introduced in the 18th century to further safety. Toward the end of the 19th century, the French fencing master Camille Prévost set forth rules and fencing began to emerge as a competitive sport.

The Grand Military Tournament and Assault at Arms in London in 1880 was the first formal fencing competition. Fencing was contested collegiately starting in 1894. Fencing is one of five sports that has been at every modern Summer Olympics since 1896 along with athletics, cycling, gymnastics, and swimming.

“People have a hard time understanding it’s not just fighting,” said Roux, who grew up fencing in France. “Anybody can take a stick and fight. It’s the finesse and the technique you acquire. How you move the sword, but really with the finesse. If you don’t have that, you don’t get to a higher level of competition.”

(Photo by Sebastiani Fencing Academy)

The three disciplines of fencing — epee, foil, and saber — are characterized by their styles and different rules, in particular how each scores points by hits or touches of their weapon in the one-on-one bouts. Foil and saber are weapons of convention and use a right-of-way rule that rewards a point to the fencer with the initiative if both fencers touch each other at the same time with their weapon. In competition, a referee determines right of way to award a point.

Saber fencers can score by striking their opponent anywhere above the waist, a nod to the weapon’s background in cavalry. Saber matches tend to be fast moving with aggressive attacks.

“Saber bouts are over very quickly,” said Epply-Schmidt. “So if people are not necessarily patient, they may opt for that.”

Foil scores by touching only the torso. It is more stylized than the other two weapons because it was spawned out of the use of practice weapons in the 19th century rather than actual dueling swords.

“There’s kind of an artistic flourish that goes with foil that doesn’t always come with the others,” said Epply-Schmidt.

Epee bouts tend to take longer, though fencers can score with a touch anywhere on their opponent. There is no right of way, so the first epeeist to touch is awarded the point.

“Both fencers are usually very cautious — trying to create a situation or wait for their opponent to make a mistake without making one themselves so they can hit first,” said Sam Blanchard, Princeton High School (PHS) head coach. “It’s like they’re going into a high stakes chess game, which takes a while.”

New Jersey has produced some of the top fencers in the country, with 20 percent of the U.S. team at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics hailing from the Garden State. The area has seen growth thanks to the addition of fencing programs in local high schools. Princeton Day School, The Hun School, and The Lawrenceville School all have long-established programs dating back decades. The West Windsor-Plainsboro high schools, Montgomery High School, and most recently PHS 11 years ago added fencing programs to a high school fencing-rich state.

“That grew fencing in the area tremendously,” said Roux. “It became very popular, and clubs started to pop up everywhere.”

Fencing is popular enough locally that the Princeton branch is the only YMCA in the Greater Somerset County group that supports a fencing program. About 30 fencing students are part of the Y program that Blanchard said is unusual for being a community program that also has developed several competitive fencers. He works with a variety of levels of fencers as head of the YMCA program, coach at BCAF, and head coach of PHS since its inception.

“It’s a sport that requires a lot of patience and a lot of precision,” said Blanchard. “It’s like trying to teach someone to dance where they have very specific movements and positions they need to know. They’re very specific.”

Blanchard and PHS celebrated their first state champion when sophomore Larry He won the boys’ epee crown at the NJSIAA state tournament in March 2022. He only began fencing five years ago after taking a lesson in fifth grade. He tried a fencing camp while visiting relatives in China that piqued his interest and opened his eyes to his potential. He started fencing more seriously in sixth grade at Wanglei International Fencing Club in Plainsboro, where he balances his training time along with training and practice bouts at Medeo Fencing Club in Bridgewater.

“Fencing for me is a fun way to relax,” said He. “I don’t think of it as a chore or job or task, but that it’s fun and like a video game. Going to practice is fun. Going to that tournament was a bit more stressful, but also fun. At the end, it was a surprise, and it was a culmination and really fun and worth it as well.”

Fencers need the basics of a mask, jacket, foil, and glove to start, and can rent or buy equipment. The highest level of equipment can be quite expensive. Clubs offer electronic strips that are necessary to accurately score bouts. Clubs provide private and group training and the chance to fence others while also bringing a social element. When COVID-19 prevented SFA members from meeting in person, Roux hired the French national team coach to conduct training sessions over Zoom from his Paris apartment.

“We didn’t want to abandon them because everything they learned would go to waste,” said Roux. “And they were of course so inspired. We did that for a couple months. That was amazing. Even though the students were in their basement or room, they were able to keep their skills fresh and technique without fencing anyone.”

Of course, many fencers look forward to the opportunity to compete at divisional, regional, and national levels. Divisions are broken up by age from youth up through veterans, and by classification level of expertise. Competitions are deeper than ever, and tournaments can have upwards of 200 competitors in a division as more and more are exposed to the sport.

“The advent of YouTube has changed everything,” said Epply-Schmidt. “You were lucky to get 30 minutes of fencing at 2 in the morning during the Olympics. Now it’s all over YouTube. You can look at it and analyze it and that’s helped the growth as well.”

Epply-Schmidt has no plans to stop fencing, which has held a significant part in his life as an athlete and coach. He fenced in high school for the only French maestro in Texas before becoming a three-time All-Ivy League fencer and national finalist at Princeton University. Almost 40 years later, he is a two-time defending national champion.

“It’s a marvelous sport,” said Epply-Schmidt. “It’s a lifetime sport. It requires all kinds of discipline, physical and mental. It teaches lessons about keeping yourself focused and using your training when you perform — just like playing the piano. It has all these great attributes to it, including safety. It’s a fun sport.”

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