En Garde! Lafayette College Offers a Duel to Those Who Dare
Modern sports like football and basketball dominate the national athletic landscape in the 5,000 colleges and universities across the U.S.
However, only 46 have intercollegiate fencing programs. Lafayette College is one those rare few that embraces a sport with roots dating back to antiquity.
Lafayette senior Costanza Davis spent most of her childhood living in Italy. As she walked through her hometown of fair Verona, she was surrounded by remnants of the Renaissance and developed an appreciation for the ideas and artistry of past eras.
“Fencing is a big culture in Italy,” Davis says. “Whenever the Olympics are on, it will definitely be on TV.”
Daughter of a Lafayette alumnus and fencer, Davis grew up playing the more common basketball and volleyball since fencing wasn’t an option at the English-speaking schools she attended in Europe.
However, as she planned to go to college, she was sure she wanted to attend her father’s alma mater and join the fencing team.
Much different than the ball sports she played previously, she needed to learn an entirely different set of athletic skills and train herself to disregard her natural instincts.
“Contrary to popular belief, you are not supposed to run when someone is trying to stab you,” Davis says. “In fencing, you are supposed to stab back.”
Foil, épée and saber are the three types of weapons available in fencing, and each has its own set of rules and requires unique training and technique.
Foil is a descendent of the light court swords used in past centuries by nobility to train for duels. In competition, the valid target area is the torso – shoulders to groin – and to score points, touches must be made with the tip of the blade.
Épée (pronounced EP-pay), which literally means sword in French, is slightly heavier and stiffer than the foil. Like foil, touches must be made by the weapon’s point, but the entire body is a target. Protecting one’s increased target area often means fencers spend more time probing opponents’ defenses before risking an attack.
Where épée is the weapon of defensive strategy, saber favors an aggressive offense with a slash and hack approach. Saber fencers can score with the edge of the blade as well as the point. The target area includes everything above the waist including the arms and head, which is meant to simulate a cavalry rider striking from atop a horse.
Tournament rules vary, but typically five or 15 points will win a period. In some direct-elimination rounds, there are three, three-minute periods in a match.
Due to the lightning-quick action in fencing, technology has helped improve the accuracy of scoring.
Weapons are wired electronically to register touches. In foil and saber, the fencer’s vest, called a lamé, contains a metallic material that helps create an electrical circuit upon a touch. A saber mask is also metal since head touches are valid. A lamé is not worn in épée since the entire body is a valid target. The épée’s blade tip registers a touch based on pressure. For all, the electrical signals light up a scoreboard when weapons touch valid target areas.
Alex Gorloff, who is in his third year on the Lafayette team, was a New Jersey state champion in saber during his tenure at Ramapo High School. His imagination and inclination to fantasy helped guide his athletic path.
“As an 8-year-old, I was thinking, ‘Swords are pretty cool. I want to try that,’” Gorloff says.
Physical agility is important, but winning the mental game during a match is key, according to Gorloff.
“I’ve won or lost based on who succeeds at outthinking the other,” Gorloff says. “It’s not always about speed or strength. It’s who outplays their opponent.”
Lafayette fencing head coach Jarrod Rottau graduated from Lafayette in 2010 and was the foil team’s captain from 2007-09. He said newcomers to the sport should expect fun, fast-paced action that requires a high degree of athleticism.
“It takes a tremendous amount of training and, more importantly, the dedication to do that training,” Rottau says.
Lafayette’s fencing program began in 1927 and, if this season’s team is any indication, it will continue to provide an avenue for those who seek modern sport combined with the artisanship of bygone days.