The art of fencing has been in existence since… well, since as long as swords have been in existence. Although the bulky breastplates and heavy swords from the days of old have been exchanged for sleek lamés and lightweight blades, the art lives on today as a modern Olympic sport.
In fact, over the course of nine days, from June 27 to July 6, fencers as young as under 10 to longtime veterans of the sport travel far and wide to compete at the 2015 USA Fencing National Championships in San Jose, Calif. There are over 7,000 entrants in total for the 84 events, each vying to show their skills and fight their way to the top. And since an event this enormous needs to be held at an equally enormous venue, the San Jose McEnery Convention Center (with over 165,000 square feet to host the fencers!) was perfect for the job.
Attending this staggeringly large tournament are four Arcadia Apaches: incoming junior Isaac Gomez, incoming sophomores Benjamin Yeh and Martin Lu, and incoming freshman Sean Chu. All four athletes train at Fortune Fencing in Monrovia under coaches Geoff Russell, German Valderrama and Steven Yang.
Gomez is no stranger to the sort of high-level competition found at national fencing competitions such as this one, nor is he a newcomer to the sport; this is his third time at Nationals, and he has been fencing for the past six years.
There are three styles of modern Olympic fencing: foil, epee, and sabre. Each comes with its own unique rules and techniques. Foil, for instance, has a very small area on the body that you can score in, whereas in epee, there are no restrictions on which body parts get you points. In both foil and epee, points are scored only with thrusts; sabre, on the other hand, is a cutting weapon as well as thrusting weapon, and any sort of touch on the head, arms, and torso counts.
“I started with foil the first two years,” Gomez says. But when Coach Geoff Russell saw the potential Gomez had in a different weapon, he says, he decided to make the switch and pursue epee instead.
Both Lu and Yeh compete in epee as well, and have been doing so for the past four years. This is Yeh’s third time at Nationals, and Lu’s second; both love epee for its freedom.
“Anything goes [in epee],” Lu says. “Since the whole body is the target, you can hit anywhere you want.”
“Pretty much anything you can come up with works. Anything is possible in epee,” Yeh seconds.
Chu is attending his first Nationals this year, competing in sabre. His favorite thing about sabre, he says, is the speed. “There’s more action in sabre,” he explains, “and the style is more like how Zorro fights.”
But even with such differences in the styles, the four agree that the same set of traits are necessary in every successful fencer.
“A good fencer [needs to have] … speed, agility, patience, determination, and a steady mind,” says Lu.
Chu agrees that determination is an essential quality. “You need determination to push past your mental and physical exhaustion during a tournament,” he says.
This is especially true at a tournament as large as Nationals, where a single event can have over 100 competitors facing off. The waits between bouts are long, and the constant sound of metal clashing against metal—punctuated by the occasional scream—fills the air; it’s an environment that keeps the athletes on edge. Not only do the fencers have to fight being physically tired from their rapid-fire bouts, but they have to combat the intense pressure that is present at such a high-level competition.
Intense is the right word to capture a bout in its essence. On the strip, a fencer has to play as both their own offense and defense, and a single misstep can be costly. There are no teammates to help you through; it’s just you and your opponent facing each other down.
“The thought process you have to keep is mainly not caring,” Gomez explains with a laugh. “‘Cause once you start thinking, you’re overthinking. It’ll just pile a weight above your shoulders. So I just try to play it cool, and try to be as mobile and as free as possible and… I just fence.”
“You definitely have to keep calm the whole time, and make sure your head’s in the right place,” Lu adds. “And definitely, you know, replenish yourself with food.” Food, both he and Yeh agree, is one of the most essential things to have at a tournament.
All four are thrilled that their hard work has paid off. They train year-round, balancing schoolwork with practices and competitions (both in and out of state!).
“During the school year, my life is about 60 to 70 percent school, and 30 to 40 percent fencing,” Gomez estimates. “But now that it’s summer, it’s 100 percent fencing, which is great because I get to focus on Nationals.”
Working hard is as essential to fencing as any other sport; as Isaac puts it, “You have to do whatever it takes [to get to Nationals]. If you just give it your all, you’ll do fine.”