This is the final article in a five-part series by Matthew Solan on Olympic sports that fiftysomething readers can take up to boost their fitness.
When I was in my early 20s, I joined a fencing class at my local recreation center. My instructor, a 60-plus German woman with iron-gray hair, explained how the ancient sport was "physical chess." The goal, she said, was to outthink your opponent by observing and responding to his or her attacks and defense.
If you tuned into the fencing competition at the London Olympics, you saw this "chess" match played at the highest level. Competitors sized each other up, waiting and waiting until, like coiled snakes, they struck. If it were not for slow-motion replay and electronic scoring, it would have been tough to catch the decisive lunges.
Fencing is an elegant sport with a distinguished history — one of only five sports to be contested in every modern Olympics. It has long been dominated at the Games by European powers like Italy, Hungary and France, and 2012 was no exception, with Italy claiming the most medals — seven — three of them gold. The U.S. went home with a single bronze, in the women's team epee event; two-time Olympic sabre champion Mariel Zagunis, who carried the American flag into the opening ceremony, was upset in her bid for a third gold medal.
Back at home, though, fencing continues to grow in popularity beyond prep school and Ivy League walls. You can find a club in your area through USA Fencing, and many recreation centers now offer classes as well.
Fencing is one of those rare sports you can enjoy — and excel at — regardless of your age. “Many fencers take it up later in life because it’s something they’ve always wanted to do, and now they can get around to it, or they tried it at an earlier age and miss it," says Dan Kellner, a member of the U.S. team that finished fourth in men’s foil at the 2008 Games, who is now the owner and coach of Brooklyn Bridge Fencing in New York City. Others are drawn to the tactical aspect of the sport. "They might not be as athletic as they once were, but they can still outthink and defeat younger competition, and they enjoy that,” Kellner says.
The first thing most of us notice about fencing is the unique equipment. The white uniform jacket is made of heavy cotton duck fabric or nylon; women wear breast protectors underneath. The familiar mesh-covered mask slips over your face to protects your head and neck. Finally, a single padded glove goes on your dominant, or fencing, hand. In competition, fencers wear breeches or knickers (short trousers that end below the knee), but beginners can usually get by with workout pants. Most classes lend equipment to students, or rent them for a small fee, but many people choose to buy their own mask and glove for hygienic reasons, at a total cost of about $75.
Then there are the three types of blades — foil, epee and saber. The foil has a flexible, rectangular 35-inch blade and weighs less than 1 pound. The epee is heavier and has a stiffer blade with a triangular cross-section, and a larger hand guard. The sabre is the classic swashbuckling weapon. The swords all come with tip guards and are not sharp; when you're in uniform, being struck by one feels like a finger poking you.
The Basics of Fencing
The objectives of fencing are simple: attack and defend. The strategy is not so much to "stab" your opponent but to score points by landing “hits” or “touchés” on target areas of his or her body. Each discipline follows different rules. In epee, which is like a traditional duel, the entire body is in play, and the fencer who touches his or her opponent first earns points. In foil, however, scoring areas do not include the arms, neck, head or legs, which makes for more of a challenge. In saber, the fastest-paced fencing event, only touchés above the waistline, including the arms and head, are counted, and fencers score points with both the tip and edge of their swords.
In a fencing class, you'll be taught proper stances and practice the back-and-forth footwork of advancing and retreating. Then you'll be schooled in the fundamentals of thrust and parry. You thrust when you lunge and attack your opponent by pushing your blade straight out. You parry to defend by retreating or blocking thrusts with your blade.
The Benefits of Your Fencing Workout
You can work up a good sweat behind your mask. Since fencing involves so much lower body movement, it builds up the muscles of your quads, glutes, hamstrings and calves. “I have one student who’s 66," says Judy Cummings, head coach of the women’s fencing team at Yeshiva University in New York. "He went through many health issues, but after he took up fencing, he lost weight, his stamina shot up, and his high blood pressure sank. In fact, his doctor suggested that all his patients take up fencing.”
Fencing also may help you make faster, smarter choices in other sports, as you get more adept at the constant decision making that the sport requires. In a 2011 study published in Psychology of Sport and Science, researchers found that fencers committed fewer reaction-time errors on a computer aptitude test than non-fencers. Specifically, the researchers noted how the combination of fencing skills and fitness appeared to shape one's ability to withhold action when necessary — to resist leaping before looking.
The sport offers another benefit as well — total withdrawal from the surrounding world. “When you run, your mind can always drift to your daily life,” Cummins says. “But in fencing you can’t think about anything else except you and your opponent. It’s the great escape.”