Fencing: Safe, “Even though the goal is to stab your opponent”

Fencing seems like a fast-paced and violent sport, yet its injury rate is very low compared to other sports – as we are always happy to point out, you are more likely to be injured playing badminton than fencing. A 2012 Scientific American article ranked all summer and winter Olympic sports according to how many of each sport’s athletes were injured during training or the games. (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/leg-head-injuries-frequent-at-olympics/). The fact that fencing was ranked as one of the safest sports is no surprise to experienced fencers, but seems to have surprised the author of this article, who pointed out fencing’s low injury rate specifically and said “Even though the goal is to stab your opponent.”

If you think about fencing’s origins, it makes sense that we would work hard to reduce our injury rate. Fencing started as training for duels, and the people who were training for duels wanted to make sure they didn’t die. They started by simply blunting their weapons with a large wad of leather, which they thought looked like a flower or florette – this is where the term foil comes from. These wads of leather had to be about the size of your eye socket, so that accidental hits to the eye wouldn’t gouge out your eye.

Over the years we’ve improved our safety equipment beyond that simple wad of leather. Today’s fencer, in competition gear, is covered from head to toe with the exception of the back of the head and the back hand. If you keep your back arm out of the way and don’t turn away from your opponent (both of these are rules violations, anyway), your bare skin should never come in contact with your opponent’s weapon.

The essential pieces of gear for practice are the underarm protector, the jacket, the glove, and the mask. Some competitors also wear plastic chest protectors. Fencing pants and knee socks are required for competition, and a good idea although not required for practice. If you’re using the electric scoring system you’ll add more gear, but we’ll cover electric gear in a future post.

Chest protector Plastic chest protectors are required for youth events and for women of all ages. They can be worn by teen and adult men, but usually aren’t. The original requirement for women to wear chest protectors came from the mistaken belief that hits to the breasts caused breast cancer. Researchers have since disproven that, but most women prefer the added protection, so the rule has stayed in place.

PlastronThe underarm protector is more formally called the plastron and more informally called the armpit protector. It’s a half-jacket that covers the fencer’s dominant side from above the elbow to the neck. The most important aspect of the plastron is that its seams are not placed directly beneath the seams of the jacket. This way, in the event that a weapon breaks and the jacket seam fails, there’s another layer of protection between your opponent’s jagged blade and your soft, squishy insides.

Fencing jacketThe jacket is long-sleeved and can zip in front or back. Most fencers who buy their own equipment prefer to have the zipper in the front. The zipper on a front zip jacket is on the off-weapon side, so that it is rarely hit by opponents. Most clubs prefer to buy back-zip jackets, as these can be used by both lefties and righties. The jacket comes down to cover the groin in front and has a strap that goes between the legs and connects to the back of the jacket. This helps prevent the jacket riding up.

20150730_195439The glove is thick, with a cuff that should cover at least half the forearm. We only wear gloves on our dominant hand, to protect the hand from hits and to help control the weapon. In the age of duels, competitors would issue a challenge by throwing down their glove or gauntlet. We joke that this is the reason that modern fencers only wear one glove – because we would already have thrown the other glove at the opponent before starting the bout.

Fencing maskThe last piece of safety equipment you put on is also the most important: the mask. It’s made of a strong wire mesh, coated with rubber. The mesh allows you to see and breathe, while still protecting your face from hits. It also includes a thickly padded bib that should cover your neck down to the collarbones, protecting those vulnerable veins, arteries, and your windpipe from direct hits. The mask should fit snugly, with a Velcro strap around the back of your head and a metal tongue to hold it in place. Coach Dan and I have a perfect record of fencers leaving our class with the same number of eyeballs they came in with, and it’s because we insist that fencers always wear their masks when they are holding weapons or standing near people holding weapons.

All new fencers who enroll in our classes get access to these basic pieces of safety equipment, plus a weapon, from the very first class. Some clubs make new fencers wait a few sessions – sometimes even months – before allowing them to suit up and start hitting and being hit. At Houston Sword Sports, we know that the real reason you came was to get a chance to try swordfighting. We will teach you the fundamentals and still let you have fun by actually participating in the sport.

We know the gear itself isn’t really the selling point of the sport, but safety is a top priority. After all, we can have a lot more fun if we aren’t covered in bruises and gashes and poked-out eyes. Sign up for a class today and we’ll make sure you have a great time and come home in one piece.

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Fencing at the Bellaire Rec Center

A word from the other guy…

Hi all, I’m Dan Gorman, one of the founders of Houston Sword Sports.

Like Coach Liz, I started fencing in college. For me, it was Purdue University in the fall of 1990. I quickly fell in love with the sport and was traveling with the club to local tournaments and collegiate meets. We fenced NCAA powers like Notre Dame and Ohio State University as well as clubs like Indiana University and University of Michigan. I found many life-long friends in the Purdue Fencing Club as well as my wife. When she graduated, I followed her to Texas A&M in 1995, where she attended graduate school.

At A&M, I started coaching the Ags and taking lessons in Houston at Salle Mauro Fencing Academy, where I had the opportunity to work with and learn from world champion fencers and coaches for nearly 20 years.

While the work was rewarding, I felt that Houston was missing a club that was focused not on elite fencers,  but on people who like me want an opportunity to find an amazing sport they can enjoy for the rest of their life. Enter Houston Sword Sports. I spoke with Liz and other like-minded individuals, and we’ve put together a plan we think will bring a lot of joy to a lot of people.

Hope you join us for the ride.

Doing a demo at the West U Rec Center on Bellaire.

Doing a demo at the West U Rec Center on Bellaire.

Yeah, we did a tournament at a local distillery. Bottles of rum for prizes. This is a good sport.

Yeah, we did a tournament at a local distillery. Bottles of rum for prizes. This is a good sport.

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From Mom to Musketeer – The Buzz Magazines

Originally published in The Buzz Magazines, September 1, 2009:

From Mom to Musketeer

Cheryl Laird

Writer Cheryl Laird salutes before fencing at her first Summer Nationals tournament. (Photo: Christopher Germano)

Life-changing moments come in all shapes. For me, it was a beekeeper’s mask. Actually, it just looked like a beekeeper’s mask, with its black metal mesh.

“It’s for fencing,” said my husband. I finished unwrapping his Christmas present and posed awkwardly for a photo. The gift came with fencing lessons.

“For me?” I thought. “You shouldn’t have. Really.”

He explained that since I rode horses and loved fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings, he figured that all I was missing was the sword.

It was the most thoughtful present I ever had received. And I didn’t want it. Fencing was way out of my comfort zone, and I didn’t like to do things I didn’t know how to do.

Besides, I was a mom to two young kids. Moms don’t poke other people with long sticks. Moms apply too much sunscreen and fall asleep at 9 p.m. It had taken time for me to embrace motherhood, but now I had settled comfortably into my role.

At the first class, I felt as if I had wandered into the wrong room and didn’t have sense enough to leave. It was embarrassing to jog with the younger students with all my extra mom softness flapping around.

When we picked up our weapons, my teacher told me to hit her. I tentatively reached out. It felt wrong to stab her so that the steel bent. Unlike the adolescent boys in the class, I hadn’t grown up play-fighting. My sister and I didn’t wrestle. When I got hurt, I didn’t tough it out in silence.

It took a while, but I came to relish those nights. My bruises became badges of honor. Maybe the foil wasn’t a real sword, but I felt like a hero. When I got a touch, I felt a rush of primal satisfaction. I liked competition. How could I have forgotten that?

It slowly dawned on me that as rewarding as motherhood was, it wasn’t the final chapter in my life. I was still the same tomboy I used to be. Saying vows and giving birth didn’t make me a girly-girl.

Some of my friends didn’t get it. But others who had passions – art, horses, work – did. We shared our guilt over time spent away from family. We wondered whether we were good role models. I wished out loud that I had fallen for cooking or something useful. But I felt undeniably alive.

This summer, I placed well enough in local tournaments to qualify for the year-end U.S. Summer National Championships. I drove up to Dallas with a friend from my West University-area fencing club, Salle Mauro.

The convention center was packed with competitors, most under drinking age. But there were a surprisingly large number of people my age and older.

At first, I went into my old mode of “Oh, isn’t it funny that I’m doing this?” If I didn’t act as if I wanted to win, then it wouldn’t hurt to lose. Not surprisingly, that attitude didn’t pay off, and the results of my first foil event were nothing special.

The next day, I competed in epee. In epee, you can hit your opponent all over, while foil has different rules and a smaller target area. I was newer to epee and didn’t expect much.

But sometime during my bout, I realized that my opponent didn’t know me, or that I was someone’s mom. She was scared. Of me. I began to predict what she would do and beat her to the punch. It worked. And then it worked on the next girl. And almost the next one.

I lost to her 15-14. When I lost, I threw back my head and yelled in frustration. And it felt awesome. I had done all that I could do, and she beat me fairly. But I could have beat her. And the next time, I would. I realized, finally, that I deserved to be there as much as anyone.

The final day was a foil event for women in their 40s. The veteran fencers’ actions were clean and beautiful. Until they took off their masks, you couldn’t tell their age. It was inspiring, and I was satisfied with placing in the top half.

Afterward, I learned that a woman in her ‘80s was fencing that week. “The shell ages,” she had said, “but the desire to compete is the same.”

I get it now. Thanks to the gift of a beekeeper’s mask.

– See more at: http://thebuzzmagazines.com/articles/2009/09/mom-musketeer#sthash.OeaNftQj.dpuf