Ryerson’s fencing athletes are barely recruited and rarely offered scholarships.
Instead, half of this year’s squad walked into the Kerr Hall lower gym not knowing the difference between épée, sabre, and foil. They carved out their spot on the team through open tryouts, having never previously picked up a sword.
With a low budget and even less interest in the team, Ryerson was not competing with a full roster. Head coach Alice Lu and team manager Kyle Foster were forced to change their strategy.
This year, the two coaches are focusing on using heavily advertised open tryouts to select first-year students with no experience. They may stumble with footwork at first and still not know all the rules by the time of their first tournament, but Foster said he can turn these beginners into winners in four years.
“(The team) builds a fencer in first year, to decent in third, to talented in fourth,” Foster said. “It’s the difference between programs that flounder and stay at the same level, to ones that show continued improvement.”
Fencing tournaments include both individual and team competitions. The points accumulated by the placement of each athlete contribute to a team score. Without a full squad, Ryerson was getting badly beaten in team competitions. “Even if you have someone finish last, that’s still one point,” Foster said. “Having pure beginners is better (than not having a full squad).”
Without developed skills to look for, Foster focused on the basics. He looked for height and athletic fitness, but more importantly for passionate students who he thought would commit to the team.
Jessica Oakes, a first-year fashion design student, is one of many who have turned fencing into a passion. Oakes said she went to the open tryouts because she had always been absorbed by the fantasy of sword fighting.
“Who hasn’t seen Zorro and wanted to knock a sword out of his hand?” Oakes said.
Oakes, who competes in the épée discipline, has been competing at tournaments and finishing around 40th place. She said losing is part of the learning process for a fencer with little experience. “You lose but feel good. I think I have been getting better and (my finish) wasn’t bad for someone who’s only been fencing for a few months.”
Development has also been tough for Marcena Lau, a first-year creative industries student.
Lau fences in the foil discipline which has more rules than épée, such as the right of attack. Knowing all of them proves to be difficult. “There are extra sessions for rookies,” Lau said. “Even now, we still don’t understand the rules completely.”
Foster and Lu help the students understand the complicated rulebook by having them judge sparring matches in practice. Under watchful eyes, a judge is assigned to each match. When they incorrectly assign points, they’re corrected and another rule is learned.
Lau, like Oakes, continues to develop a passion for the sport. She originally joined the team for recreation, but now takes extra lessons at a fencing club in Markham and is quickly heading toward Foster and Lu’s goal of being medal-worthy by her fourth year.
Expectations may be high, but integrating into the Ryerson community without worries of living up to scholarships and recruitment standards helps.
Cindy Su, a first-year hospitality and tourism student, said the open tryout strategy allows students to easily adapt to the life of an athlete. “There isn’t much of a transition from the high school method,” Su said. “We don’t have to adapt to the pressure of being on a varsity team.”
She said less pressure makes it easier for her to meet the coaching staff’s four-year plan — and maybe even surpass it. “I want to develop before fourth (year). I’m trying to beat that pace,” Su said.
Lau has even greater goals.
“It’s kind of far-fetched, but before I hit 25, I would like to make a national team,” she said. “It’s kind of unrealistic, but I’m willing to work for it.”
This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on February 5, 2014.