As the coaches, competitors and students at the New Mexico Fencing Foundation will tell you, today's fencing derives from one long-ago practice: the gentlemanly fight to the death. From the shape of the weapons to the areas of the body that count as hits, the rules of the points-based sport trace back to the days of familial honor when it was normal to challenge a foe to a legit duel.
Contemporary fencing, however, does differ from its sometimes fatal forbear in one important way: Fencers don't draw blood to score.
Today—thanks to an ingenious 20th century invention—a fencer is wired to a complex electrical system in which a wire runs from the sword, down the wrist and arm and out the back of his or her jacket to a circuit system hooked up to the wall.
When fighting with épée or foil—the two earliest fencing weapons—a small pin on the end of the sword compresses as it hits the opponent, connecting a circuit that registers a point on the scoring box.
The sabre, however, is different. With the sabre, any place the sword touches—whether it's near the handle, the very end or somewhere in between—is worth a point. So for sabre fencing, each fencer is rigged up in a jacket woven with copper wires that conduct the electricity flowing through the sabre. Even the fencing mask gets a little metal clamp and it, too, is hooked up to the wall—yes, head shots count. Only the top half of the body needs to be rigged, however, since, as Bram Meehan, fencer and NMFF board member points out, "It was ungentlemanly to hit the horse." Therefore, only the waist up is legal in sabre.
The use of electricity not only made the sport immeasurably safer, not to mention more accurate, it also changed the way fencers fought. Fencing is not a contact sport. In fact, a fencer barely needs to touch his or her opponent to register a hit. It takes a little more pressure to compress the pin in the épée than it does that of the foil, but even just a barely there swipe from the sabre registers with a beep on the wall.
A few other changes have come with modern times.
"Classical fencing, you hold the weapon in your right hand, and your left hand goes like this," Meehan explains as he throws his left hand up in the air, limp-wristed and flapping near his head. "But no one cares about that any more."
Meehan says there are some classical coaches who work with their students for years just on footwork before even thinking about putting a weapon in their hands.
"Nowadays, we realize that no one would stick around for a year," he says with a laugh.
Spend some time at the NMFF's practice gym on Clark Road during downtime and it's easy to forget that this sport traces back to the most formal of encounters. The NMFF hosts classes for everyone from children to first-time adults to seasoned sword handlers who compete at high levels. The club strives to make even folks who are totally clueless about fencing (which, Meehan admits, is sometimes viewed as an elitist sport) feel welcome. NMFF founder Jamey Odom, the 2009 men's world championship épée coach, has an easy laugh and a bright smile, often joking with his fencing students and colleagues in the laid-back atmosphere.
On a recent visit, 19-year-old college student Zach Kenyon and 17-year-old Gavin Medley (the 2008 national champion in épée and a 2009 junior Olympics competitor) putter around the room in search of stray sneakers and mesh masks but, once they are on the floor, their bent-kneed, crab-like walk flows almost magically as they push each other forward and backward in a line.
Fencing involves standing in a lunge position for minutes on end. The far foot, the left one, stays at a right angle to the front foot, the right, which points straight toward the opponent. Traditional fencing shoes are made asymmetrical with more instep structure on the left and more ball-of-the-foot action on the right. Speed and agility are everything in fencing, and the brain needs to know precisely what to do to make the other person do exactly what it wants. It's telepathy and trickery simultaneously.
As for that footwork? Part of it is talent, yes—there's a certain lightness and agility in a natural fencer—but much of it must be learned.
"It usually takes about six months before it all really starts to click for a student," Meehan says, watching Kenyon and Medley lunge, parry and attack, among other moves.
Medley and Kate Fulghum, another young member of the fencing club, then fence each other. Fulghum is approximately a foot shorter than Medley and, while he may have a greater reach, she is less of a target. Nevertheless, Kate is having an off day and, in practice, Medley's score light blinks on again and again. Finally, Fulghum, a student at the University of New Mexico, takes off her mask and volunteers to play photographer instead.
Inside the suit, it's hard to know which way is up. The 3-foot hunk of metal attached to one hand and strange, cumbersome metal helmet surrounding the head doesn't much help concentration.
Kenyon, Fulghum and Medley made it look easy; once one is covered in copper and Kevlar, the challenges become clear: A whack to the head is more a loud noise than a physical sensation. It's like being inside a safe bubble with nothing to fear in the world, only someone is coming at you with a sword.
Injuries in fencing seem inevitable—after all, people are rushing at one another with swords.
But Odom and Meehan insist only beginning fencers really hurt or get hurt; they don't know how to hit; they don't know how to fight in a gentlemanly manner.
"In competition, it's actually the goal to hit as lightly as possible," Odom explains. Furthermore, once one gets serious with fencing, the whole "hurt or be hurt" thing becomes a self-policing problem. "If someone's known for hitting really hard, no one wants to fence them," Odom says.
Shortly after Odom and Meehan finish explaining how safe fencing is compared to, say, football, Fulghum comes limping out from the back room with a bag of ice.
"Gavin got me," she says with a laugh. The tiny 22-year-old redhead lifts her pant leg to show off two red welts on her ankle—literally the only body part that is not protected by at least two layers of protective Kevlar clothing. She sits down on the floor and reaches for a beer from Meehan.
"Fencing is always best followed by beer," Meehan says jovially as the group sits in a circle near the front door. Summer is the slow season for the NMFF, and August, especially, is fraught with member vacations and lazy evenings. On this evening in particular, Medley, Fulghum and Kenyon may have worked up a sweat but, for the most part, it was just a gathering of friends doing what they do best: rushing around with pointy metal objects.
New Mexico Fencing Foundation
1306 Clark Road