Carnegie Mellon University
April 24, 2020

Crossing Blades: CMU's Fencing Club Learns To Strategize with Swordplay

By Bill Lyon

Jason Maderer
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Early one Saturday afternoon in February — before the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to stay at home — students shuffled into the Arena Room at Skibo Gymnasium on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University, grabbed their pointy weapon of choice and crossed blades.

"It's like you're in a real battle," said senior physics major Zhiyao (Olivia) Li. "You feel like you're a knight."

This clashing of steel isn't as chaotic as one might imagine. Standing 'en garde,' face masks on, sabres raised, these members of the CMU Fencing Club await the signal to begin their bout.

Since 2000, the Fencing Club has taught Carnegie Mellon students the sport of Olympic fencing. Fencing traces its history back to the days of swordsmanship for dueling and self-defense. Over time, it developed into a sport and has been a part of the Olympic Games since its reintroduction in 1896.

First-year mathematical sciences major Gregory Zelevinsky appreciates the mind games and strategy that comes with fencing.

"You can kind of predict what your opponent is going to do," he said. "You can counter them and they counter you back. With the weapon I use, which is a sabre, it's really fast paced."

Sabre, foil and épée are the three weapons used in modern fencing and each comes with its own set of rules and strategies.

Fencing puts a strong emphasis on footwork as well as blade movement. Hand-eye coordination, speed, balance and reaction time are all imperative to success.

"It's interesting coming back and fighting the same people. Learning their strengths and weaknesses, and learning their tricks," junior material science and engineering major Amelia Barberis said. "Seeing them learn from you. You're all becoming better fencers together."

On occasion, the Fencing Club will compete in tournaments and scrimmages with other universities, but overall students said that what they enjoy most is the open, welcoming and relaxed atmosphere the club provides.

Li, the club's social chair, loves when new students come to join them. Joining doesn't require previous experience.

"When they come, we teach them from the beginning," Li said. "I want people to know that it's a very safe sport. It looks dangerous, but you're actually very well protected."