Students Dare to Duel

On Tuesday and Thursday nights, the UC Grandroom is transformed into a Renaissance arena. Fencers stand poised with fixed concentration waiting for the mediator to announce, “Allez.” Suddenly, flashing metal clangs as opponents dip and lunge across the glossy wood floors.

What appears to be a rehearsal for the Three Musketeers is really a typical meeting of the WCU Fencing Club. The current president, Andrew Dodson, has been a member almost since its inception in 2005. He raves about the sport.

“Fencing is like a physical game of chess-it requires body and mind to be coordinated to achieve a strategy. No other sport is like it.”

Originally, fencing was practiced by nobility in preparation for warfare and involved a sword and shield. Later, training for duels became a gentlemen’s pastime, and the equipment became more refined. This led to the lightweight foil and epée, flexible fencing swords with bowl-shaped hand guards that aristocrats wore on the street.

Although these weapons are still used today, the emphasis is on scoring points rather than inflicting damage. Dodson patiently explains the equipment, rules, and strategies to prospective members that show up at meetings.

“With the foil and epée, the object is to pierce your opponent’s target area. With the saber, you slash.”

Of course, the piercing and slashing are only hypothetical. All the swords in the club’s collection have special tips that calculate points instead of causing bodily harm.

“A wire runs internally from the tip of the sword to an electronic device. When the tip connects with the mesh vests we wear, it scores a point. This cuts down on arguments about whether or not a point was scored.”

Amanda Grippe stands in the en-garde position, head forward facing her opponent, body sideways for protection, knees bent, ready to spring. Dodson demonstrates the different parrying positions, the half-moon and full-moon, the thrust, the press, the beat.

“People can surprise you. I can work with someone at the beginning of a match and believe that it’s going to take a while for them to get the basics down. Then, when I put them in their first bout, they completely transform. Timid people can suddenly become aggressive, aggressive people can freeze up. You can never assume anything about a fencer,” Dodson confesses.

Although the WCU fencing club travels, it is not officially a team.

“The only UNC school that has a real team is Chapel Hill. It has an ex-Olympic coach. We watched them one time but we aren’t in their league. We’re just a club,” Dodson explains.

Not competing in a conference alleviates a lot of pressure. Western’s team is more focused on learning. Over the last four years, the club has secured new electronic equipment, body protection, and now a roomy practice area in the UC. But Dodson thinks that the most important thing about fencing is people.

“It can be a long, close, ferocious battle, but afterward, when the fencers take off their masks, they shake hands and they are right back to being friends again.”