Breaking through the fence: how to make the Ryerson team

Ryerson students fence in Kerr Hall Gymnasium. (Victor Ferreira/ Ryersonian Staff)

Ryerson students fence in Kerr Hall Gymnasium. (Victor Ferreira/ Ryersonian Staff)

Walk into Kerr Hall’s lower gym on a Tuesday or Friday night and you might have trouble understanding what’s going on. The paint on the walls is chipping off above one of the benches where it seems bored athletes pick away at it while resting. Indoor soccer nets are set up against the walls but no sport with a ball is being played. A lone student still attempting to dribble a basketball is quickly kicked out. These athletes need all the room they can get. They’re learning how to walk.

They can all walk with one foot in front of another. This is different. With knees bent and a straight posture, they position one leg in front while the other stays behind. The back foot is turned outward at a 90 degree angle. A step forward is taken with the heel of the front foot, followed by the back.

They can’t allow their arms to rock back and forth by their sides. One is tucked in but sticking forward and parallel to the floor. The other is guarded on the side.

Someone yells, “Allez!”

The athletes move forward and backward, lunging in between, from one side of the gym to the other. Their sport may look easy when it’s done by your favourite scallywagging pirate or masked Hispanic outlaw on television but fencing isn’t for the untrained.

If you ask most of Ryerson’s fencing athletes, they will tell you they still don’t know how to walk. Learning to comfortably move, while in the en garde position, is essential to a competing fencer. But after years of walking with one foot in front of the other, this isn’t something that athletes can pick up on the first day, first week, or even first month.

Eric Phung, first-year business management student, took several weeks to feel comfortable with the footwork.

“It’s still not up to par,” Phung said. Phung joined the team this year through open tryouts, never having fenced before. He spends two hours per week practicing his steps with the team and another two at home or in the gym in front of a mirror. By the end of each footwork session, Phung has walked 30 gym lengths in this awkward position.

“We might do about 150 steps and like 50 lunges. It depends on the drill. If we’re trying to work endurance, we might do the whole gym to have longer distance to travel,” said Phung.

Fencing may invoke a lot of muscle memory but after most practices, athlete’s muscles may be too worn out to remember a new way of walking. For three-hour sessions, twice a week, Ryerson’s fencers are at work in the lower gym.

Step. Step. Back step. Lunge. Step. Step. Repeat.

Assistant coach Darcy Gates leads the drills. Endurance-focused drills are mixed and matched with those meant to work on agility. Walking in the en garde position is similar to walking like crab. These fencers have to do so with lightning pace. Knees are sore and buckle at the end when the athletes have to deal with more than just being out of breath.

But that’s only the first hour. Hour two brings more fun and laughs.

The fencers practice skills like blade-work next. You have to attack your opponent in a certain way. They can’t just go swinging for heads like Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Fencing, Gates insists, is about finesse. Strikes are done by extending the elbow and jabbing your opponent in a slight but rapid forward movement – almost like that of a lance. Depending on the discipline – epee, sabre, or foil, the area where you can hit your opponent increases. Fencers in the foil class wear a grey vest and to score points, you can only hit them in that area. Fencers in the sabre class have to defend their arms from strikes as well.

Accuracy is practiced. Athletes face the walls and practice striking the precise grooves between the bricks. Gates also runs drills on parries or defensive blocks. A simple flick of the wrist to block an incoming strike on the left or right can allow a once-defensive fencer to gain control of his opponent’s blade and ready himself to score.

Then it comes down to the final hour where fencers practice their bouts. The classic white jackets are put on although some have lost their shine with age. The sweat from the last user can still be felt in the inside padding. Vests worn on top of the jackets are hooked up through electric current to a scoreboard, which also tells judges whether strikes are accurate or not. Just like a classic duel, fencers wear only one glove for their weapon hand.

Then it’s fencer to fencer, teammate against teammate for the last hour. Danielle Stepanian, third-year nursing student, was left to deal with her own aches and pains when she first joined the team.

“I remember leaving the gym and limping home,” Stepanian says. “Even now if I fence hard I’m still sore the next day. I don’t think the muscles ever get used to it.”

Sometimes, there are more than just sore muscles. Stepanian had never suffered an injury as a fencer but at this year’s Ontario University Athletics (OUA) tournament she pulled a muscle in her foot, strained a muscle in her groin, and badly bruised her thumb and wrist.

“I badgered my hand. If your thumb is too close to the inside of the blade, you’ll continuously jam it,” said Stepanian. “The whole thumb and into my wrist was swollen, green and purple. I felt like I bruised the bone.”

Phung couldn’t even compete at the OUA tournament because of a sprained wrist keeping him on the sidelines. Muscle strains and pulls may be unavoidable in the sport but these two athletes, along with most of the team, do their own workouts in the gym to strengthen their bodies and prevent injuries from happening.

Team members participate in cardio-heavy workouts at the Recreation and Athletics Centre during the season. Adding to that and the two practices per week, Stepanian does regular workouts for another three days per week. On Mondays, she swims for 45 minutes. Tuesdays she has practice. On Wednesdays, she participates in spin classes – endurance and speed based cycling — at the RAC. Thursdays are home to kettle bell classes – using weights with a handle in strength and conditioning classes. Fencing practice takes up her Friday nights and on Saturdays, Stepanian does more spinning and weight training.

Phung does his own weight training, yoga, and cardio work to stay fit.

Mike Francki, first-year computer science student, had fenced for four years before joining the Ryerson team. A bout in Newmarket, Ont. during the Ontario Challenge Circuit showed him the importance of endurance. Francki competes in the foil discipline and was matched against an opponent in the direct elimination round whose skill was equal to his. Direct elimination bouts run to 15 strikes. For the first five, Francki and his opponent were evenly matched.

“But after five hits I could tell he was out of gas and he really didn’t score,” Francki said. “After that, he was done. That kind of shows when we were both not exhausted, our fencing was at the same level but my fitness started showing above his.”

Fencing at an OUA tournament can mean having to compete in about 10-15 bouts with as little as 15 minutes in between.

But in fencing, brains best brawn. Experienced fencers who rely on strategy can sit back, use little energy, and pick their spots for points.

“I call them sneaky fencers. They do sneaky things at just the right time and grab points by being clever. If you have enough skill at it then you don’t have to use as much fitness because skills compensates,” said Francki.

There is so much strategy to learn, footwork to be perfected, and muscles to be crafted before success can be found in the sport. Newcomers whose experience amounts to having watched the Mask of Zorro will always think they can strut into the Ryerson gym, pick up a weapon, and compete.

But just like toddlers, they’ll have to step before they can learn to walk.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on April 9, 2014.

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