As we cycled up to the City Academy Sports Centre yesterday afternoon we could see through the large plate glass windows a scene that in another time, another place may have resulted in a bloody ruction. Yes, it was the Bristol Open Fencing tournament.
But modern fencing isn’t bloody. According to the Bristol Fencing Club, you’re more likely to be injured jogging or playing golf. As a spectator sport, fencing is much more exhilarating than either of these. It’s no wonder the spectator feels the danger – even if this is more perception than reality – fencing is a sport of swordplay that pits opponents against each other with the aim of being the first person to make a hit.
On the first day of the tournament, there were two women’s fencing events – sabre and epee. We arrived at one o’clock – in time for the women’s sabre and women’s epee top 16 byes.
The first duel I watched was the women’s sabre, on the recommendation of a helpful volunteer manning the doors. She said that sabre was very fast-paced. Points are scored by touching your opponent with your blade. Unlike other fencing techniques, it’s possible to score with the edge of the blade and it’s for this reason that sabreur attacks are so quick.
The target area in sabre is restricted to the head, torso, and arms (excluding hands). Participants cover these areas with electrically conductive material to form a single circuit. Swords are plugged in to provide an active current and hits are registered electronically on a flashing scoreboard. The referee has the ultimate say. The somewhat complex rules in sabre mean that it’s not as straightforward as the modern electric swords might make you think.
The rules mean that the duellers can’t score a point at the same time. If both are hit then it is up to the referee to decide who had right of way, essentially making a call on who was on the offence and who the defence.
I watched two sabre duels. The first was between Katie Hendra and Emma Potter, representing Great Britain and England respectively. The second duel I saw was between two British women, Letitia Steer and Harriet Dixon. Not being familiar with the rules, it was difficult to follow. And being so fast-paced, this novice couldn’t fully engage as it all seemed to be over before I’d had a chance to think about what was happening.
The rest of the afternoon was spent at the women’s epee. In epee, there are no “right of way” rules – a hit is a hit – which makes the sport easier to follow for a novice.
Epee is often described as dueling to first blood – the first hit scores a point. And that hit can be anywhere, from top to toe. Even hands are included. Unlike sabre, the hit must be with the tip of the sword. Also unlike sabre, the opponents don’t need to wear conductive material because the hit is registered through a press button at the end of the sword. You must hit with enough force for it to be registered. The sword is plugged in to an electronic scoreboard but a referee keeps it all in check. The first person to 15 points is declared the winner.
Having looked at the British Fencing Senior Women’s rankings, I see now that I was lucky enough to witness some of our country’s top epee competitors: Mary Cohen, Katrina Smith, Georgina Summers, Marg Oniye – among others. From the International Fencing Federation, I can also see that I was lucky enough to watch 43rd in the world Juliana Barrett from South Africa.
The epee duels were intoxicating. Even though, logically, you know that the sword isn’t really going to puncture anyone, when you see it jabbing into a person’s chest you can’t help but take a sharp intake of breath.
What I enjoyed most about the epee was the psychology. You could see the duellers concentrated stares, trying to decide what move to make, trying to ascertain what move their opponent might take. I’d heard fencing described as a “game of physical chess” and I could see why. Fencing is a sport of strategy, honed through training and technique. It’s a sport that values the brains over the brawn. That isn’t to say that the fencers aren’t fit – a duel is a vigorous workout, requiring duellers to be agile and in good condition.
The last duel I saw was between Mary Cohen and Jess Osbaldeston, both British duellists. At the end of the first three minutes, Cohen was on 5 points with Osbaldeston not far behind at 3 points. Cohen came back from the break to quickly stretch her lead, widening the gap to 5 points with a minute and a half still on the clock. The pace and tempo of the duel was thrilling. Cohen won the duel with 47 seconds still left on the clock and a strong 6-point lead. Checking the epee results on the Bristol Open tournament website this morning, I was not surprised to see Cohen in second-place.
If you’d like to try fencing for yourself, the Bristol Fencing Club frequently offers beginner courses. The sport welcomes people of different abilities, ages, shapes, and sizes. Learning how to fence might not be a skill that comes into daily use, but the mental agility required is something that can be used in all areas of life. Plus, it must feel pretty cool to introduce yourself at parties as a sword fighter (which I am sure is what all fencers do – and if they don’t, they should!).
All photos copyright of Patrick Grace Photography. Please do not reproduce without permission.