A look at the age-old University Fencing Club

by Betsy Graca

Sure, football and baseball dominate ESPN and primetime television, but historically, fencing has persevered generation after generation – claiming the spot as the oldest club at the University.

The University’s Fencing Club began in 1904, but the sport itself has held a strong presence on campus since the 1880s.

An estimated 20 regular members and at least 20 occasional members, both male and female, make up the club team.

Practices are held three times a week in preparation for the upcoming season, which lasts from November to March. The club is hosting a tournament this weekend at the Bierman Field Athletic Building.

Club President Lief Mattila didn’t develop an interest in fencing until he attended the University and was in search of a niche at such a large school.

“There’s not a lot of sports that involve literally attacking someone with a sword,” he said.

Although fencing has more popularity overseas, where it first began, colleges across the United States have found a large interest in the sport.

Rich Jacobson, former club coach and current head coach for the Minnesota Sword Club, said most colleges have a fencing program of some kind.

Jacobson said the sport is especially popular among college students because it’s such an intellectually based game.

“It’s a mind game of trap and counter-trap,” he said. “It’s a physical game of chess.”

Math and physics senior and fencing club veteran Daniel Ambrose said the original attraction to fencing comes from the romantic portrayal of the sport in films and novels.

“People have a grandiose idea of fencing, like in the movies,” he said. “People underestimate how much effort the sport actually takes.”

Ambrose said the club sometimes finds its most intense competition among schools that have a varsity fencing program as opposed to a club.

The club advocated a varsity program in the 1990s, he said, but the University insisted funding was not available.

Jacobson said part of the problem relating to this lack of funding is the fact that fencing is not spectator-oriented like other team sports.

Natalie Roberts, a graphic design first-year, is new to the fencing club. She said the fact that it’s not a team sport is what initially sparked her interest.

Roberts said she prefers a personal, individually based atmosphere.

“In modern society, we don’t get the chance to duel it out with our friends,” she said. “We get to use that primal instinct (in fencing).”

Roberts added that in fencing, there isn’t so much a gender discrepancy, but a challenge in regards to height differences.

Fencers with longer arms have the upper hand, she said.

Roberts said she has been instructed mainly by male coaches and has therefore gained an offensive strategy rather than the more typical defensive strategy some women might focus on.

A lack of coaching is sometimes what makes fencing programs challenging, Ambrose said.

Jacobson, however, said over the last 10 to 15 years, coaches have been coming from Europe to teach fencing, noting the growing popularity in the United States.