Star-Bulletin Features

Get the point?

Fencing: A genteel sport
wherein you try to poke holes
in your opponents, with finesse

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin

By Burl Burlingame

ZORRO. The Three Musketeers. Robin Hood. You think famous swashbucklers like these convinced Colin Chock to pick up a sword and begin fencing? Nope. It was Star-Bulletin writer Lois Taylor.

"I was intrigued by fencing and was reading all I could about it, and I ran across a story by Miss Taylor in the newspaper about fencing," said Chock. "That story was the key."

Must have been Taylor's legendary rapier-like wit.

That was back when Chock was a senior at Hawaii Baptist Academy, where he discovered some fencing equipment in mothballs. Now, Chock is a sometime Olympic fencing hopeful who runs the Salle Honolulu Fencing Club, which practices Monday, Wednesday and Saturday evenings at the Moiliili Community Center.

Fencing has nothing to do with building fences -- although Chock does get the occasional call from home-repair enthusiasts -- and everything with trying to poke holes in antagonists. The sword as an extension of the male ego (and libido) has been around for thousands of years, and ritual sword-fighting as a sport exists in most cultures. Japanese kendo, for example.

Until the late Middle Ages, the sword was a mighty-edged weapon that sliced. Improvements in metallurgy then created a flexible, strong, pointed weapon that could be used to thrust as well as swing, and sword-fighting shifted from lumbering swingers to footloose thrusters.

Modern fencing pretty much began in France and Italy in the 1400s, and by the 1800s, the education of a modern gentleman included fencing. It sharpened the reflexes while the gent pondered Manifest Destiny. Fencing was one of the sports included when the Olympics were revived a century ago, and is still an Olympic staple, as well as one of the five sports of the Modern Pentathlon.

"Most Americans discover fencing in college," said Chock. "The good thing about fencing is that you can get into it at any age, and at any level of physical conditioning. It's a sport for a lifetime, though it takes about 10 years to become a really good fencer."

It was the romantic allure of fencing that drew in Chock, by trade a library assistant and currently "at liberty" due to state library cutbacks. He grew up reading swashbucklers and marveling at the sure-footed cavaliers in movies.

"I'm not into the blacksmithing, Society for Creative Anacronism, 'Princess Bride' kind of thing. It's the sport that's exciting to me."

Chock said one fellow in his club does both kendo and fencing.

No route to fame

Fencing in Hawaii, let's face it, is a cusp activity, ranking somewhere in popularity between surfing and kicking flaming soccer balls at night.

"It's never been a big sport here," said Chock. "Each generation has had some kind of fencing club in which the leaders have tried to push it over the top. But it's hard when the average person can't even name our Olympic fencers."

So there's a kind of fencing underground, with a "dozen or so" hard-core fencers showing up regularly at Moiliili, a web site that attracts tens of visitors and supplies available only by mail.

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Fencers practice their skills at the Salle Honolulu
Fencing Club, which meets three nights a week
at Moiliili Community Center.

"There's maybe only a couple of hundred fencers in the state," estimates Chock. "You'd think there'd be more fencing going on with out-of-state visitors, but even when Olympic fencers visit here, they're off skin-diving instead of fencing."

Although saying so is a "generalization," said Chock, fencing is largely an East Coast sport in America, and the big-time fencers come from traditional centers like France and Germany. The Russians got into fencing big-time in the '50s, although they are often accused of rigging the electronic scoring devices.

"The U.S. never does well in Olympic fencing. Part of the problem is fencing is largely a mental sport, and there's nothing worse than a bunch of disenfranchised intellectuals sitting around wondering why they don't do better."

A bigger hurdle is that fencing is exclusively amateur. If professional fencing existed, with the hope of maybe even earning a living at it, more would be attracted to the sport. In the meantime, the potential Tiger Woods of fencing are picking up basketballs and golf clubs instead.

An equal-opportunity sport

This low turnout despite the fact that fencing is fairly egalitarian, being about the only combat sport open to both men and women. Many women fence; the Star-Bulletin even ran a regular column about women's fencing just before World War II.

Men and women do not compete against each other, however, even though the only criteria is speed and mental agility.

This inner gamesmanship, this brisk battle, also makes fencing fairly frustrating as a spectator sport. Clickety-click, hop hop hop, and it's over. It's also one of the few sports in which the judges can stop the proceedings on the grounds of being hopelessly confused.

"It's possibly the most complex one-on-one sport. Olympic-caliber fencers are SO keen, they're like Sherlock Holmes. They hold you off with the automatic part of their mind and training while analyzing you with their strategic mind, and then they're in for the kill. They're just smart on their feet."

As a sport, it's reasonably cheap, even by mail-order. A foil costs $30 to $35; a beginner's mask about $60; jacket, about $40. "Certainly less than $200 to get started," said Chock. "Although, as you get better, you'll upgrade your equipment. The only repeating cost is blade replacement. They wear out, or the blade breaks, and that's about $15 to $20 for a new blade."

How to play

The objective is to "touch" an opponent with the blade tip within a six-minute time limit. Fencers wear protective masks, padded throat, hand and chest protectors. Five touches, and you're out.

There are three type of blades and target areas. Foils are whippy little blades; the torso is the target. The sabre is heavier, and triangular in cross-section; anything above the waist counts. The epee is sort of in-between the other blade sizes, and you can poke any part of your opponent, from his ears to his toes.

"Even the sabre is quite whippy; fencing swords aren't Conan the Barbarian affairs. Some people think they're sissy swords. But you can use the flexibility to your advantage while fencing."

The handles of modern fencing swords are lumpy ergonomic affairs. When grasped, however, they're surprisingly comfortable and controllable.

"Fencers tend to concentrate on epee, foil or sabre. They're the same, yet different enough to matter, like the difference between tennis and racquetball," said Chock.

On the other hand, footwork matters. "The biggest mistake beginning fencers make is picking up a blade too fast," said Chock. "Some European schools study footwork for a year. It's mainly good for the lower back and agility; there's little upper-body strength involved in fencing. Your knees are always bent. While there are dancers who make good fencers, being a good dancer won't make you a good fencer.

"That's because dancing is dancing, while fencing ... is a fight. It's combat."

Get the point?

Fencing tournaments

Oct. 4: Carvalho Gym, Hilo.
Nov. 1: Maui High School Gym, Nov. 1.
Call: 545-8750.

Do It Electric!

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