A Look into Chattanooga’s Fencing Community
For most people, fencing is one of those sports that you know of, but might not know much about. Yet this modern form of combat has fostered a strong, engaged community across the globe – Chattanooga included. Here, we look further into the world of the sport, and local fencers chime in on their experiences with it.
By Anna Hill
Trevor Haines and an opponent at a Hamilton County Fair fencing demonstration // Photo Courtesy of Dojo Chattanooga
If you were asked to name a sport, your first thought would probably be something like football, baseball, or basketball – something you regularly see played at a professional level on television. Your mind likely wouldn’t immediately go to sabres, soft white armor, and the art of combat.
Though fencing is now an Olympic sport and a unique way to stay agile and in shape, it certainly didn’t start out that way. Believed to have originated in Western Europe, fencing began as the art of swordsmanship for the sake of dueling and self-defense; however, in the 18th century, it shifted toward a fashionable sport taught primarily to young men of aristocratic birth. Today, fencing is far more accessible, and student and community clubs dedicated to it can be found all over the world.
A fencing class at Dojo Chattanooga // Photo Courtesy of Dojo Chattanooga
How It’s Done
Fencing is not just one, but three forms of a combat sport. The three forms of fencing each have their own unique weapons and sets of rules. There is the foil, the épée, and the sabre, all named after the weapons they utilize. Technique can be classified into two forms – either offensive or defensive – which can be performed in countless combinations during sparring.
Foil is named for the foil weapon, a light thrusting weapon with a circular hand guard primarily intended for safety purposes. With this weapon, only the torso is considered a valid target, with arms and legs excluded. Only the tip of the blade may be used for hits. A touch to any area not in the target zone stops the action but is not scored. If opponents touch a target simultaneously, only one fencer may be given a point. This is awarded by the referee based on his or her determination of who has gained the ‘priority’ or ‘right of way.’
The three weapons: Épée, Sabre, and Foil // Photo Courtesy of Dojo Chattanooga
Épée is modeled around a thrusting weapon that is similar to the foil, but heavier. In épée, the entire body is considered a valid target. While sparring, hits must be given with the tip of the blade, never the sides. In this form of fencing, there is no ‘right of way’ as fencers may be awarded touches simultaneously.
Sabre is named for a cutting and thrusting weapon similar in weight to the foil. In this form of fencing, the entire body above the waist, save for the weapon hand, is considered the valid target area. Unlike in foil or épée, touches with the tip or the entire blade are valid in sabre. Furthermore, off-target touches do not stop the action during sparring, though the ‘right of way’ rule still applies.
As for equipment, all fencers must wear a uniform and protective gear, which includes a white jacket, knickers, arm protector, knee socks, mask, and in some cases, a chest protector and/or lamé vest, which is made of electrically conductive material that helps to define the scoring area.
Coach Kristin Vines and members of the Baylor School fencing team // Photo Courtesy of Baylor School
Who It’s For
Fencing can draw people in for a variety of reasons. Kristin Vines, a fencing coach at Baylor School and national competitor, admits that it was the Errol Flynn movies of her childhood that first attracted her to it. “I loved the swashbuckling adventures and leapt at the chance to fence in college,” says Vines. “Fencing was the first sport that ever really appealed to me, and I took to it quickly. After graduation, I sought out opportunities to continue in the sport.”
For Trevor Haines, fencing instructor and owner of Dojo Chattanooga, it was the television screen that caught his attention as well – though for a different reason. “I saw fencing on TV in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and was enthralled,” he explains. At the time, he was only 10, which meant he was too young to start fencing in the programs offered by schools in his area. Later in life, he fenced a bit in college, then seriously started training in 1996.
One of the best characteristics of fencing is that it’s a sport that can be for anyone. Vines highlights how inclusive it is, saying, “Fencing is a sport for life. People of all ages compete, from ages six to 80+. It’s a sport that accommodates all sizes and different abilities as well.” For example, there’s a variant of fencing called chair fencing, which is adapted for those who use wheelchairs. Chair fencing has been included as a sport in the Paralympic Games since it was introduced at the Rome Paralympics in 1960.
Baylor students fencing // Photo Courtesy of Baylor School
Over at the Chattanooga Fencing Club, president Andy Breon, who formed the club after stumbling upon one fencing class in the area and seeing a greater need that wasn’t yet being met, reiterates how it’s accessible as a sport. “Since we are a club, we have a fun and relaxed atmosphere, with fencers from ages 10 to 80,” he explains. Even though the club offers instruction in Olympic-style fencing, he emphasizes that ‘Olympic-style’ shouldn’t intimidate anyone.
Due to the level of strategy involved, what one might lack in stature or speed can always be compensated elsewhere with proper practice and tactics. The key to being a good fencer is developing your individual strengths to maximize your opportunities. “Often my students have said, ‘If only I were faster, taller, shorter,’ and so on, and my reply has always been to use what you have better than your opponent uses what they have. As the saying goes, ‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog,’” Vines says. In fencing, everyone can succeed once they play to their individual strengths.
Why It’s Unique
So many qualities set fencing apart from other, more popular modern sports today. Haines believes that its distinctive origin is a particular draw. “It’s a Western martial art that’s built on a foundation of chivalry,” he explains. When most people think about martial arts, they gravitate toward Eastern styles that often feature hand-to-hand combat. Fencing can be a desirable option for those seeking a combat sport with weaponry, which relies more upon agility than force.
Something else that separates fencing from other sports, according to Breon, is that it’s designed for the individual. Outside of a few exceptions, such as tennis or figure skating, most popular sports are team-centric. “It’s you, and you alone, matching weapon skills, physical ability, and mental acuity against a singular opponent,” Breon explains. While fencing can be physically taxing, it heavily relies on the individual’s ability to strategize and react with great mental quickness.
Though all sports involve some level of strategy, as mentioned before, it’s particularly integral to fencing. Some compare it to a game of chess: one-on-one, constantly making moves that attempt to anticipate the next three that your opponent might make. Vines views a match with an opponent as a series of traps to be laid. “I love seeing them fall neatly into my plan, especially if I can get them to do it repeatedly,” she says. In fencing, the quality of your decisions will always be dependent upon what you anticipate that your opponent is thinking and doing, and less so upon your physical strength.
Andy Breon (back left) and members of the Chattanooga Fencing Club // Photo Courtesy of Chattanooga Fencing Club
How to Succeed
As with all things, practice and dedication are required to succeed at fencing. However, it’s also a little bit more complicated than that. According to Haines, the ability to multi-task is what’s key. “Mental and physical stamina, power, and flexibility are a must,” he says. “Fencing involves rapid and explosive footwork while intricately controlling a blade – all while adapting to change in tactics as someone else is trying to stab at you.” Being able to balance multiple skills and channel them into one sparring session is what turns an amateur fencer into a pro.
Vines adds that time, patience, and self-confidence are also vital elements to one’s success at the sport. “In any sport, a positive mindset is your greatest ally,” she says. “This is achieved by taking the time to drill and have a solid foundation of the basic moves. Once you have this, you can begin to relax and allow yourself to put your hands and feet on autopilot while you analyze your opponent and take them apart.” No one ever becomes an expert overnight, but with fencing, putting in the hours will result not only in easier practices, but more reliable skills as well.
Though mental sharpness and prowess is incredibly important to the art of fencing, it’s by no means the only factor of success – the physical element of the sport can’t be ignored. Breon emphasizes the importance of good hand-eye coordination, agility, and physical stamina, saying, “Even Bruce Lee took his stunts to the next level after he began attending fencing classes to improve his balance and footwork.”
Chattanooga Fencing Club members practicing // Photo Courtesy of Chattanooga Fencing Club
What’s to Love
Most people who get involved with fencing have loved it for years, or, if they’re younger, plan on doing it for years to come. Vines has been competing for decades and still represents the United States in foil events at Veteran World Championships. Over the years, Vines has won four national championships in women’s foil, and she’s not done yet. “I hope to make the team again when travel is open,” she says.
Though she loves competing, she also finds fulfillment in her three-decade-long career teaching fencing. “In my years at Baylor, I have had the pleasure to coach many young people. To see some of them still involved in the sport years later as competitors, referees, or coaches of their own programs is my greatest reward,” says Vines.
For Breon, he loves the tradition of the sport. In instructing new fencers at the Chattanooga Fencing Club, he gets to pass on the skills and practices of something that can trace its origins back through centuries. He also enjoys that even celebrities have taken part in maintaining the tradition of fencing. “I love sharing the history of the sport and sharing names of those who people might not know were great fencers, like Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, and even Neil Diamond – just to name a few,” says Breon. Fencing has been an Olympic sport since the Athens Summer Games of 1896, but it was practiced as a sport long before that. With centuries of tradition comes a strong, dedicated community of athletes.
Another notable aspect of fencing is the way that parts of it stay with you, even when you’ve left the mat and packed your uniform away for the rest of the day. “The discipline of mind and body from fencing stays relevant when dealing with the stresses life throws at us,” Haines explains. “I love being a positive part of that journey and transformation with my students.” It turns out that all of the skills that one needs to succeed in fencing – mental sharpness, observation, strategizing, and discipline – are skills that are useful to have anywhere in life, whether that be doing well at school, sticking to a healthy eating plan, or simply interacting with others. Excelling at fencing can make you not only a better athlete, but a better person.
Where You Can Do It
It’s easy to see that, if you’re looking for a new sport or hobby in your life, fencing is absolutely worth pursuing. Luckily, there are places around Chattanooga where you can get involved. If your students are at Baylor School, Vines leads a strong program there. For college students at UTC, you can join up with other fencers through their club sports program. For others of all ages, Haines offers fencing classes weekly at Dojo Chattanooga, and the Chattanooga Fencing Club welcomes anyone who’s interested to their weekly meetups at the Belvoir Christian Academy gym. The entire fencing community of Chattanooga embraces newcomers, and if you’re interested in fencing, they invite you to take a stab at it. It’s almost certain to be a rewarding experience. CS