Attack, he says softly, and waits until the students 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 masters in geology last year) gliding forward and back on the six-foot wide, 45-foot long strip that is the fencers field of action, its limited space emblematic of the ideal of standing ones ground.
Sophomore Sandy Lubben, her off-hand held behind her back, has whether shes 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.
I didnt 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 sports intelligence and athleticism. Whether youre 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, fencings term for referee.
Says Sise, You can tell when somethings ugly. Its a grapple instead of clean action. Adds Coombs, When it goes well, its ballet.
Theres 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. Its a team sport but its very much an individual sport. The team can win or lose, but when youre out on the strip, its 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 havent thought about my organic chemistry exam at all. Fencing can consume me.
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 teams 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. Its 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 its 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. Its an aspect of the sport that Coombs loves. Theres a salute in fencing, and you always shake hands afterwards, she says. Its courteous. Im drawn into it for the atmosphere.
Its 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. Youre 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 hes acknowledging the subcultural courtesy of his sport: Its very congenial. Normally you wouldnt be friends with your competitors, but Ive 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