The Art of Sport and Learning

By Alex Langlois, Photography by Bob Handelman

More than any other sport, the art of fencing reflects the liberal arts spirit thriving at Drew University.

Photo by Chris Pedota

Like a successful student, the proud fencer maintains a commitment to craft, vigor of body, mental agility and a touch of serendipity. Both demand understanding, consideration and preparation-as well as a strong dose of daring and reckless confidence. And just like Drew, the Ranger fencing program is enjoying unprecedented success, especially in the last 10 years.

The 2006–2007 season—fencing’s 75th at Drew—marked the return of the NCAA National Fencing Championships to The Forest. Senior epeeist Dana Sanford was Drew’s sixth NCAA qualifier in recent years. Even more numerous are the success stories of Drew’s fencers off their dueling strip. For Brenna Rabel C’09, Naomi Bocarsly C’09 and Tim Howes C’07, this sport—flourishing at one of the NCAA’s smallest schools—has expanded both their athletic and educational horizons.

The initial appeal for all three was the physical aspect of the sport, but eventually each of the fencers found the mental aspect to be the biggest allure. Much like great writers speak of finding their “voice,” fencers often speak of a “mental zone”—an elusive place that keys their success. Howes found that when he competed in a full-day tournament—rather than in a single match after school—he was able to mentally prepare and focus successfully. The mental state, somewhere between “psyched up and as relaxed as possible,” was important to his success and served him well at the collegiate level.

Rabel remembers finishing fifth at a tournament in high school as the impetus for an increased commitment to the sport: “It was a confidence thing. I realized that maybe the girls at my school were just good, not that I was especially bad. After that, I got better and better.”

Relishing their high-school experiences, the opportunity to fence became part of their choices for college. “Fencing was the reason I chose Drew,” recalls Rabel. “I knew I wanted a small school with a prominent fencing program, which narrowed it down.

I visited during Jan Term and [Head Coach] Dayn [DeRose] just left me at the snack bar with the team while he talked to my dad. Even though it was awkward at first, I realized that they were a group I could really get along with.”

At Drew, the athletes found the attributes that made them so successful on the fencing strip were part of who they were becoming as students. Like an opponent with a misleadingly long lunge or exceptional quickness, the academic rigors of Drew can present unexpected challenges. Top fencers, who tend to be highly successful students, have to be ready for the unexpected—and accept responsibility for the outcome. “What I take from fencing to the classroom most is a sense of self-reliance and accountability,” says Howes, a biochemistry major. “Like they are on the strip, my results in the classroom are mine.”

“We work in practice to make each other better, but once you are on the strip in a meet it’s entirely up to you,” says Rabel. The independence she honed in bouts came in handy during a semester abroad in Paris. “There is a certain problem-solving aspect to fencing that helps out in life.”

Bocarsly believes her study of fencing has improved her pursuits in psychology—both require her to develop a sense about a person just by looking at them—as well as her performance in situations outside the classroom. “There are aspects of fencing, particularly because it’s [both] a team sport and an individual sport, that help you learn to find a balance,” she explains. “That, in particular, helps in other situations of your life.”

Choose Your Weapon

Fencers are very particular about their weapons. Never call them a sword (the “S” word), says Drew fencer Tim Howes. Each has its own character and requires a different technique.

The Foil

Foil—the proudest of weapons, according to Howes—is similar to the epee but lighter with a flexible, rectangular blade and a smaller guard. A bout is subject to the complex “right of way” rule by which the last fencer who has either attacked or defended successfully owns the “right” to score a point. The torso is the only valid target area, and only touches with the tip of the blade count.

The Epee

Descendant of the dueling sword, the epee has a long, stiff blade and a large guard to protect the hand. “I think epee is the smartest and most thoughtful of the weapons,” says Howes, an epeeist. “It has a lot of subtle blade work and the stakes are higher because every touch counts.” The entire body is a valid target area, but only touches with the tip of the blade count as a point.

The Saber

Derived from the cavalry sword, the saber sports a triangular blade and a curved guard. “The saber fencers are the loose cannons,” says Howes. “They tend to be energetic and loud, and they really like to hit people!” Any part of the body from the hips up, excluding the hands, is a valid target area. The “right of way” rule applies and, in keeping with the cavalry tradition, a hit with any part of the blade results in a touch. This makes rounds using the saber the fastest of all bouts.

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