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Winter 2001 Home

Great Sport






Space suitable
for dueling

UMass fencers hold their ground

Photo: students rally

ATHLETICISM, MYSTIQUE, and “the chance to beat someone up with a stick”: UMass fencing club practice at Totman Gym. (Ben Barnhart photo)

The tone of the voice emanating from beneath Paul Sise’s black-mesh mask is in stunning contrast to his actual words.

     “Attack,” he says softly, and waits until the student’s sabre taps his mask: just where his forehead would be.

     “Again,” says Sise. “Check your guard.” And then: “Beat in seconde” – second position, blade down – and they engage.

     If any sport can be called beautiful, fencing is it. The combination of grace, strength, and form; the contestants in their fitted “whites,” or dueling jackets; the metallic glint and click of blades. Sise ’00G (he finished his master’s in geology last year) gliding forward and back on the six-foot wide, 45-foot long “strip” that is the fencer’s field of action, its limited space emblematic of the ideal of standing one’s ground.

     Sophomore Sandy Lubben, her “off-hand” held behind her back, has – whether she’s advancing or retreating – a wide smile visible behind the shadows of her mask. “Oh, are you kidding?” she says when Sise tells her their lesson is almost finished. “I could go all night.” Limber, breathing evenly, she looks as if she could, too.

At UMass, fencing is a club sport, and one of the rare ones with little if any precursor at the high-school level. While a few members join with a year or more of experience, “the vast majority have none,” says women’s coach and former grad student Brad Baker. In fact, 90 percent of UMass’s 40 current fencers have gone through the grueling novice program within the past two years, making them a very green team.

     “I didn’t know much about the sport until I took it up as a P.E. class at UMass,” says alumnus Evan Whitney ’95, who lives in Cambridge and works at Harvard. “But when you put on the mask and pick up a weapon, you really gain an appreciation for the sport’s intelligence and athleticism. Whether you’re interested in its artistic mystique or athletic challenge, swords and fencing are pretty cool, and anybody can do it.”

     Swords are cool, at least in the hands of the skilled and nimble. The three coaches here in a Totman Gym practice room tonight – Sise, Baker, and novice coach Renee Coombs ’99, who teaches physics at Westfield High – watch the team practice warm-ups. Positions are held and broken, held again. Once the dueling starts, they coach from the sidelines, critiquing, pulling students out for individual lessons. The magic words – “Guard; ready; fence” – are called out over and over by the director, fencing’s term for referee.

     Says Sise, “You can tell when something’s ugly. It’s a grapple instead of clean action.” Adds Coombs, “When it goes well, it’s ballet.”

     There’s a reason for the comparison: Classical dance owes much of its form to the 800-year-old sport of swordplay. Some positions, such as basic position in fencing and first position in ballet, are identical.

     “I like the one-on-one,” says Kyle MacQuarrie, a sophomore in biochemistry. “It’s a team sport but it’s very much an individual sport. The team can win or lose, but when you’re out on the strip, it’s you.”

     Like many of the team members, MacQuarrie had no previous experience – he joined simply because he happened to wander through the Campus Center one day when the fencing team had a table out and The Princess Bride on the VCR. Now, “Pretty much my life here at college is schoolwork and fencing,” says MacQuarrie as he pulls on a glove, getting ready for a bout. “This past hour-and-a-half I haven’t thought about my organic chemistry exam at all. Fencing can consume me.”

COOL CONTRASTS: mask, words, tone. (Ben Barnhart photo)

Fencing has existed at UMass, either as a club sport or as part of military training, for 125 years, offering competition against such schools as Boston College, Army, and Harvard. As do other club sports at UMass, the team runs on a tight budget. Away meets are a challenge, but as sabreist Lubben says, “Someone will have an aunt out there, we sleep on the floor, eat lots and lots of pasta.” Another trick is to make the equipment last: Dueling whites can run close to $500 new, with weapon and mask adding $200 to the bill. The canvas whites worn by the UMass team have been passed along, year to year, cleaned and cleaned again.

     Add to the team’s tight funding its problems of space: Though the fencers practice at Totman four nights a week, only two nights are in a space suitable for dueling. The other two practices are limited to conditioning. That means only four to six hours a week of dueling and one-on-one lessons. “It shows,” Baker says, “though against club teams we tend to do fairly well.”

     When students don their whites and masks, an interesting phenomenon occurs: Age, race, and gender largely drop away. “It’s not brute strength,” says Coombs. “As a female you can do well against men,” although the genders are separated in formal competition. Fencing is also “a sport you can come back to,” adds Coombs. “Age is not really an issue – it’s experience that gets you far.” For those who get hooked in college, there are non-collegiate clubs across the country. The UMass coaches compete through the U.S. Fencing Association, in which Sise, for one, has the title of Moniteur d’ Escrime – instructor of fencing. Fencing alumni and friends remain connected through an associate club, Friends of UMass Fencing.

     The courtliness you might expect of fencing does exist. It’s an aspect of the sport that Coombs loves. “There’s a salute in fencing, and you always shake hands afterwards,” she says. “It’s courteous. I’m drawn into it for the atmosphere.”

     It’s fascinating to watch a sport that manages courtesy even as an opponent is attacking. Opponents politely critique one another during practice duels: “Your footwork was great,” says one combatant in Totman. “You’re retreating too much,” cautions another. Even as a fencer makes a point, the opponent calls, “Nice touch!”

     Above all, it seems a sport without anger – though not without humor, plenty of it irreverent. Team president Sean Kinnas, a junior in engineering, speaks cheerfully about getting to “beat someone up with a stick and not get arrested.” (Though in the next breath he’s acknowledging the subcultural courtesy of his sport: “It’s very congenial. Normally you wouldn’t be friends with your competitors, but I’ve made good friends at MIT and Dartmouth.”)

     When Kinnas pulls off his whites later in the evening he reveals a T-shirt with a picture of a sword piercing the front. On the back, the blade emerges with a flag emblazoned “UMass.”

     Kinnas grins: “I love this shirt.”

– Karen Skolfield ’98G

Alumni and friends of fencing are welcome to join the Friends of UMass Fencing ( Reach chairman Taro Yamashita at 781-642-9888 or at

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