Fencing: From novice to Varsity Match

Victoria Wilkes, a fencer from the Cambridge University Fencing Club

Fencing is so much more than a physical sport. You’re constantly thinking about your own strategy and trying to read your opponent, bluffing and testing their reactions as you learn to play to their weaknesses. It was this tactical element that sounded really interesting and provided the big draw for me.

Charlie Troman for CAM

Mentioning fencing tends to inspire a lot of questions. If people ask where I’m going and I explain I’m attending a fencing class, the reaction is usually along the lines of: “Wow, you fence? That’s so unusual.” It seems to be seen as very novel by a lot of people. It’s also a sport that has a rather glamorous image. After all, you see swordfighting in films all the time. I hadn’t tried fencing before I came to Cambridge. I considered taking it up at high school in Toronto, because I had friends who fenced and adored it. But conflicts in my schedule meant I never got around to trying it. Then I came here.

Cambridge University Fencing Club runs a beginners’ group for people with little or no prior experience, with coaching and equipment provided. While I missed this during the Freshers’ Fair, a friend and fellow King’s College student started fencing as a beginner, so I took the opportunity to go along and try it out.

Fencing was fun, I discovered, but also much harder than I expected. For a start, it feels as if you’re wearing around 500 layers. What really matters, though, is your height. As a beginner, if you’re not particularly tall, you can reach a point of real difficulty because your opponents will have a much longer reach than you do. That’s not to say you need to be tall to succeed. Rather, it’s a question of adapting your technique to suit your height.

Beginners’ coach Richard Morris frequently fences against people who are much taller, so he gave me a lot of good advice. Several other coaches assisted with strategies tailored to my technique and physical build. What’s the secret? With a taller opponent, it’s all about staying out of their range. Then, when you see an opportunity to hit them, it’s a question of darting into their range and keeping the period you’re in there as brief as it can possibly be.

Another trick is to move in really close to your opponent, so that you’re rather too close to allow them to hit you comfortably. When you hit and pass them, you’re trying to engineer the situation so the referee ends the round. Timing is crucial. So is keeping your eyes open and anticipating just what your opponent is planning. It’s vital to strike a balance between what you, and they, are doing.

You need to get a good feel for their technique. Are they really aggressive, or more defensive? I’m more defensive on the whole, but I’ve been working on trying to take a more aggressive approach. I don’t know how much truth there is in this, but female fencers are thought less likely to be aggressive. People don’t expect it.

One tactic is to pretend you’re going to go in and hit the other person so they demonstrate their reaction. You can test out exactly how they’ll react by bluffing them, knowing they’re going to parry your blade out of the way. Your opponent believes you fully intend to hit them, but instead, you’ll ‘do the disengage’, purposefully going around their blade.

Competing in the Novice Varsity against Oxford was a lot of fun and a really good incentive to practise my fencing. It was interesting to watch the strategy involved, particularly on the coaches’ part. I had only fenced against a couple of people at Cambridge, and the Oxford team’s technique was so different from ours. They tended to use one similar technique they were really good at, over and over again, whereas we had a much wider range.

While you need to be strong and fast to fence, there’s much more emphasis on technique once you reach a certain point. At Cambridge, I’ve done foil fencing, which limits the target area to the torso (so no hitting your opponent’s legs), and has a long list of rules regarding right of way when you hit. I did some épée fencing, where the whole body is the target and there are no rules regarding right of way, at home in Canada in the summer, and the age range went from teenagers right through to people in their 70s. That’s perhaps an extreme example, but it just goes to show that fencing is not a sport where you’re limited by physical restraint. You don’t peak at a certain time in your life.

People often worry that fencing will be really painful, but if the kit’s of a decent quality, that’s not the case. I’ve only had one bruise since I started.

For more information about the Cambridge University Fencing Club, visit www.camfc.org.uk

This originally appeared in the 62nd edition of the Cambridge Alumni Magazine (CAM)