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Fencers square off at Fort Ticonderoga
Fencers square off at Fort Ticonderoga

En guarde! Fencers square off at Fort Ticonderoga

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Our Adirondack reporter Brian Mann is a huge fan of sword fighting films, everything from The Seven Samurai to the Three Musketeers to the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

But fencing isn't all about Hollywood. It's also a venerated sport, with clubs and college teams scattered across the North Country and Vermont.

Last weekend, fencers gathered at for the fifteenth annual epee (eh-PAY) tournament at Fort Ticonderoga. Brian went to check out the real thing and sends this postcard.

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The Fort provides a historic backdrop for the tournament

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On a green field, dozens of fencers square off.  Their white canvas dueling clothes flash in the morning sun.  Blades dart and twist. 

Some kids grow up wanting to play for the Yankees.  Or they want to throw a winning touchdown for the Packers.  I grew up wanting to be a swordsman.

"The fencing master has met his equal!  Are you tiring Diego?"

That’s a bit of dialogue from Tyrone Powers and Basil Rathbone, dancing and slashing in 1940’s Mark of Zorro.

Fencing is one of those sports that never really caught on in America as competition.   But it’s everywhere in our culture.

"You can’t win Darth.  If you strike me down, I’ll be more powerful than you can ever imagine."

Remember that line?  You don’t want to know how many hours I spent in the backyard, pretending to be Luke Skywalker. So when I heard that fencers were holding an outdoor tournament at Fort Ticonderoga last weekend, I couldn't stay away.

"Come one come all, come young come old, the good the bad, the ugly!  Let’s fence!"

That’s Viveka Fox – not the Hollywood actress Vivica A. Fox, but a nationally respected fencing coach who’s been organizing this regional competition for the last fifteen years.

"En guarde!  Ready, fence!"

People come from all over the Northeast and Canada to cross swords in the shadow of the Fort’s ominous stone walls.

Fox shows me her own blade, which looks exactly like something Errol Flynn might draw.

"So this is the epee.  It’s one of three weapons used in modern competitive fencing.  It’s based on a late 18th or early 19th century duel of honor.  So it’s very appropriate for this 18th century fort to be fencing here."

The faces are hidden behind protective screen masks.  But fencing is an intimate sport, a kind of conversation.Just like in one of those Hollywood duels, you can hear the swordsmen talking trash.

"Oh, man!" a fencer groans.  "I thought I got you on the arm.  Did you feel it?"

But there’s also a lot of strategy, a lot of cagey maneuvering.

"It’s basically a defensive game, rather than an offensive game," says Stan Crockett who coaches fencing at the University of Vermont.

In April, his women’s epee team won the national title at the Collegiate Fencing Clubs Championship in Chicago. At this tournament, he’s one of the most compelling fencers to watch.  He lays back, watching, frustrating his opponents attacks – then scores repeatedly with quick flurrying stabs.

"I was trying to see what he wanted to do, feel him out, let him make mistakes and then play into his mistakes."

Some of the athletes move in quick, waltzing lunges – looking very formal, like the swordsmen in those old pirate movies.  But others bob and dance like modern boxers.

Zach Young is a fencer from Cornwall, Vermont.  He’s tall, lean, sixteen years old – and already one of the most dangerous swordsmen in the region.

"I think of my style, it’s a lot of quick simple explosive actions," he says.  "You know, they see me going back and forth with all these little patterns and then suddenly you just flash, with just this jumping attack."

Body type also shapes a fencer’s style.  Most fencers are tall, like Zach. When you’re stabbing with  a sword, a little extra reach can make all the difference. But Kate Dusenberry is a short compact woman who coaches epee at the University of New Hampshire. She attacks by darting in and sort of violating her opponents’ personal space.

"I can also get in close and once I’m here, if I can hit you here, at a very close distance, your point is well over my shoulder."

Fort Ticonderoga sits high on a bluff over Lake Champlain.  It was a pivot point for great armies during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution.  Viveka Fox says duels have been fought here for centuries.

"Almost certainly the French officers both practiced their fencing…and took out their differences that way."

The modern sport of epee started with gentlemen and officers poking holes in each other to sort out bragging rights over women or politics or family.

"You weren’t necessarily trying to kill your opponent.  It’s not a military confrontation.  So it’s just to prove your skill and your daring," Fox says.

Later, swordsmen realized that they could do this just for fun, proving who was the best athlete without actually gouging holes in each other. That meant less blood, but without the nicks and cuts it was hard for judges and referees to sort out who was scoring hits, also known as “touches.”  So beginning in the 1930s, epees were built with little electric buttons fixed onto their tips. If you stab your opponent successfully on any part of the body a buzzer goes off and you score a point.  The first fencer to fifteen points wins the bout.

This tournament at Fort Ticonderoga is fought on grass, which is rare these days.  The combats are visceral and fierce. There are plenty of bruised ribs.  As the afternoon goes on, grass stains stripe the white fencing jerseys.

The final bout is fought between Zach Young, that dangerous sixteen year old, and a veteran from Montreal named Alaen Levere. Levere has been fencing for two decades and he’s actually wearing a pirate’s scarf on his head. They dart and parry and lunge, evenly matched – going touch for touch right up to the final game point.  Then Levere strikes a quick, ruthless blow.

"Ayosh!" he cries, and the small audience applauds.

The fencers themselves have sort of mixed feelings about the way their sport is viewed.  At this tournament, one of the prizes comes in the form of an old black and white photograph of Errol Flynn. But Viveka Fox says it’s hard when people like me show up expecting all that flash and drama.

"That’s dance, that’s a choreographed thing, that staged sword play.  So compared with that, I think this doesn’t have that appeal.  Because if you don’t understand the [real athletic] game, it can be, 'Why are those people bouncing around, and making little pokes at each other.  Why don’t they smack their swords together.'"

I found competitive fencing really fun to watch.  But I can't help but think that the sport is stuck competing with its own popularity – the athletes forever overshadowed by the actors.

"You know what you’re doing, I’ll give you that," says Johnny Depp, in the guise of Captain Jack Sparrow, as he spars and dances.  "But how’s your footwork?"

 

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