The 2012 London Olympics are coming to a close — weeks of televised energy, spoiler alerts and, of course, Michael Phelps. But underneath the surface of U.S. Olympic fever are those sports that get a bit lost in the gold-medal hype.
There are 35 Olympic sports, but not all of them are shown in primetime. However, competitors in these “late night/early morning” sports work just as hard as the headline athletes not only to have a shot at winning a medal but simply to compete for one.
One of the oldest Olympic sports is also possibly one of the least seen and understood: fencing. However, it has lots of action and is quite possibly the only Olympic sport that stems from a long history of dueling to the death.
Team USA’s fencing history is relatively new: professional fencer Mariel Zagunis made history at the 2004 Olympics in Athens by winning the U.S.’s first fencing gold medal in 100 years. She was also the U.S. flag bearer at the opening ceremony for this year’s London Games.
Simon Pitfield is a fencing master and owner of the Davis Fencing Academy, a local club that teaches all ages the techniques, history and combat wit of the sport.
One of Pitfield’s students, Bella Peceli, 15, recently returned from the United State’s Fencing Association’s National Championship where she placed 13th out of 116. Peceli’s longtime goal and dream is to compete for the gold in 2020.
She highlights something that every Olympic athlete has in common: the extensive amount of daily training and conditioning during those crucial years leading up to the Olympics, whether it’s for local, national or international tournaments.
After excelling through the DFA, Peceli is taking her sport the extra mile with five to six hours a day of footwork, fencing as many opponents as possible and conditioning her body with a consistent diet of reduced sugars and carbohydrates. She also routinely watches clips from Zagunis’ Beijing competition.
“Training to fence for a tournament is interesting because it also means that you need to fence a lot of different opponents to work on different strategies,” Peceli said. “It is all about individual strategy, but at the same time, that strategy depends on the person you’re facing.”
Pitfield adds that “for the first 500 years of fencing, you come up with your own strategy, I come up with mine — one of us lives, one of us dies. The sword is potentially one of the most studied and most evolved close-combat weapons in the world.”
There are not one, not two, but three different swords that are used in fencing: foil, épée, and saber.
Pitfield says the épée is the simplest one to watch because the fencer’s whole body is the target, rather than foil and saber competitions where the torso is strictly the target.
“Because the Olympics was originally a military event, fencing is one of the few sports today that came directly through that ‘life and death’ route, as well as helping develop forms of close-handed combat,” Pitfield said.
Olympic sports like swimming and gymnastics are judged by standard mechanics in terms of form and technique; fencing relies upon the individual’s strategy. This ultimately determines whether or not the fencer gets a touch, or a point.
“Each fencer has their own way of doing it,” Pitfield said.
While there is no “I” in team — there is definitely an “I” in fencing, but it’s not such a bad thing.
“This is what my younger students really enjoy,” Pitfield said. “The team aspect is great, but if you go out for a soccer team, you’re 1 of 15. That one-on-one interaction with the coach is oftentimes lacking.”
Peceli says an important part of the whole process is having a good coach.
Dick Berry is a five-time fencing National Champion and one of the founders of Davis Fencing Academy.
“The coach and the student become very close,” he said. “I started fencing 64 years ago and my instructor in high school ended up being the best man at my wedding, and I ended up being the best man at his.”
Whether it’s swimming, gymnastics or even skeet shooting, the hard work and dedication from both player and coach are definitely required for winning the top prize.
To see fencers in action, visit the Davis Fencing Academy, 2121 Second St., on Saturday mornings for open bouts or rounds.