By Shirley Parker. (British Ladies Foil Champion 1964 & ’66. Member of the British Olympic Team 1960 & 64, Empire & Commonwealth Games Gold & Silver medals 1966. Professional Coach from 1968)
Since mankind was first on this earth it is a sad fact that his instinct has been to fight. To begin with it must have been because compared to some of our ferocious prehistoric beasts, he was a puny specimen, who could probably defend himself only by wielding rocks or heavy sticks, but through the ages, man’s fighting has become somewhat more refined, until he can now destroy cities and people by pushing a button. Somewhere in between these two extremes, fighting has become a sport enjoyed by thousands and watched avidly by thousands more when great events such as the Olympic Games is televised.Men or women will use either their hands, (boxing, wrestling, martial arts,) or a sword to inflict hits on an opponent without badly damaging that opponent, and will have those hits recorded to show their skill. This is where the art of fencing comes in.
Probably the oldest of all sports, fighting with a sword has evolved over the years to become highly technical, exhilarating and extremely physical, but few people realise it was actually considered a ‘sport’ around 1100 BC when Egyptian engravings show sword fighters wearing masks and having a scorer taking down a record of the hits on papyrus!
Modern fencing is practised with three weapons. Foil, epee and sabre. The three have different rules governing how hits are made, and where on the body they must land to be considered valid. For the purpose of this article I am describing only foil fencing. When I joined my first club in 1956 ladies only learnt foil, so I have spent my life since then concentrating on that weapon. Now ladies can learn whichever weapon they like, and compete at the highest level in all three, but whichever you choose it can be a lifetime study. Every opponent is different, and requires a different approach to land a valid hit on a restricted target.
With epee fencing, hits are made with the point only and the whole person is a target, with sabre hits are only valid when landed anywhere above a line across the hips and can be made with the edge of the blade as well as the point, while foil confines hits with the point to the trunk of the body and excludes the arms, head and legs, thereby forcing the fencer to rely on a more technical approach. The movements should become small and fast and there are rules governing the ‘right of way’ gained by initiating an attack. That original attack can be parried and the reply (riposte) then has right of way. If both fencers attack at the same time, and both make a hit, then the referee will simply put both back ‘on guard’ and re-start the phase without awarding a hit to either.
When you learn to fence you find that every movement or series of movements has a name, and by gradually learning to put them together, and use them at the right moment, you can construct a fight and work out what you have to do to overcome your opponent. It is because of this ‘constructing’ that fencing has been described as ‘chess at high speed’, and if you play chess you know just how rewarding it can be to defeat the other player. With fencing you can achieve it much more quickly and with just as much satisfaction.
Of course not everyone wins all the time, but as well as the exhilaration of movement and timing there is the satisfaction of out-thinking your opponent. In this way, fencers fall into two categories, usually because of age. When a young person starts fencing they are usually very energetic and are able to build up considerable ‘staying power’. It is a fantastic way to keep fit and one can continue into a ripe old age, still able to enjoy the mental exercise, but not as physical as a younger fencer.
At the West Dorset Fencing Club my coaching partner and I teach only foil. If your interest is in Modern Pentathlon, then you must understand that you will be required to use epee for the fencing discipline, but many epeeists fence foil as well and I would advise anyone to start with foil as it gives a good grounding. Once the basics are mastered, you can adapt style and technique to another weapon, but at the moment this would mean going to another club. Hopefully WDFC will be in a position to teach all three weapons within the next three or four years.
I am often asked what is the best age to start fencing. I would say that any time between ten and sixteen is the ideal, but I myself did not start until I was seventeen and was probably at my best in my early thirties, so it depends very largely on the individual. I have always said I will teach anyone from eight to eighty, and our club ages range from eight to seventy six. You must fit in there somewhere.