Thousands of blade-wielding athletes come to Reno for the nation’s largest gathering of fencers
The clash of tempered steel resonates amid the jagged Cliffs of Insanity. Inigo Montoya, a world-renowned fencing master, duels a man dressed in black. They exchange as many words as blows, each trying to exploit the other’s weaknesses while maintaining a gracious air of chivalry.
“You are using Bonetti’s Defense against me, ah?” laughs Inigo, lunging at the man in black.
“I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain,” the man in black replies, while his fancy footwork affords a retreat to higher ground.
“Naturally, you must suspect me to attack with Capo Ferro?” questions Inigo in quick pursuit.
“Naturally,” admits the man in black, “but I find that Thibault cancels out Capo Ferro, don’t you?”
“Unless the enemy has studied his Agrippa,” Inigo yells, with a somersault over his opponent, “which I have!”
Ah, The Princess Bride. Who knew the classic 1987 film paid such homage to actual 15th and 16th century fencing masters? Rocco Bonneti was an Italian fencing master who set up a school of fencing in Blackfriars, London in 1576. Ridolfo Capo Ferro was another Italian master best-known for his fencing manual published in 1610. Gerard Thibault d’Anvers was a Dutch fencing master who authored the manual Academie de l’Espee in 1630. And Italian fencer, architect, engineer and mathematician Camillo Agrippa is considered one of the greatest fencing theorists of all time.
But, as any modern-day fencer will tell you, the homage is paid only to the names of these masters, and the technique in the movie is nothing more than entertaining sword choreography. And with the 2011 U.S. Fencing National Championships in Reno from July 1-10, fictional swordplay is whimsical in comparison to the real thing.
The ancient sport of fencing has come a long way since The Princess Bride introduced many young people to the art. Since then, the sport’s membership has nearly tripled, rules have changed—increasing the demand on athleticism—and scoring methods have been improved to diminish human error.
Reno will host nearly 3,500 fencers in 6,618 matches, making this the world’s largest fencing tournament. Participants from all over the United States and across the Americas will compete in at least one of three tournaments: The North American Cup, the USA Fencing National Championships, and the Pan American Zonal Championships—all of which will take place at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
According to Ben McDonald, communications manager of the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority, the 10-day event is expected to generate $3.4 million in revenue for the city through hotel stays, dining, retail sales and gambling. The projected 4,800 visitors, which includes guests of competitors, are expected to stay in town for an average of four days.
With the possibility of qualifying for next year’s Olympic Games in London, this competition is significant in the fencing world. “It’s the one time during the year that fencers from the Americas can grab a large amount of points with less effort,” said Eileen Grench, a California-born, world-class fencer for Panama.
For Olympic-hopeful competitors living in the Americas, the Pan American Zonal Championship is one of the most important events of the year, and performance in this event will often make or break qualification. Only the individuals who qualified for their respective country’s national team may participate in the PanAm Championship.
Olympic qualification is heavily based on world ranking. This is decided by the number of points earned by participating and performing well in the international circuit, which includes World Cup and Grand Prix tournaments. Better performance yields more points, which means higher ranking.
The points available in the Pan American Zonal Championship are only available to competitors within the Americas. Since the competition holds as many points as a Grand Prix, which would normally accommodate competitors from all over the world, the possibility to win many points by taking them away from the competition can often earn an Olympic qualification. “A lot of Olympic qualification ends up riding on this tournament because you qualify by your zone, and the Americas all make up one zone, so it’s your direct competition,” says Grench.
Furthermore, there are three ways to qualify for individual Olympic events. First, by being in the top 12 in the international rankings. Second, individuals who are not in the top 12 ranking, but are the next top two ranked fencers from a specific zone, or continent, may qualify. Third, if a country has no fencers qualified by means of the first or second method, the country can send one fencer to the Zonal Qualifying Competition that takes place once every four years congruent with the Olympics, where only the silver and gold medalists from the event qualify.
“The whole thing is pretty convoluted,” joked one competitor.
Local fencers will participate in the competition under the aid and direction of Reno’s own provost, Eric Momberg.
A dedicated and talented fencer since he was 16, Momberg, now 32, has competed in hundreds of tournaments, including a World Cup. Since 2005, he has dedicated his life to the development of the sport, both as a successful competitive instructor, and as a member of the Youth Development Committee of the United States Fencing Association.
And while his coaching commitment has taken him out of direct competition, his students have proven very successful, winning competitions at almost every level. In fact, 28 local fencers from Northern Nevada will compete in the U.S. Summer Nationals, ranging in age from under 10 years old to more than 60.
Among them is Ric Kulik, president of the Reno Silver Blades Fencing Academy, competing in a couple of Men’s Veteran Team Events, and the Men’s Veterans Foil event. Another member of the RSB Executive Committee, Carlos Luna, will compete, as well.
Kulik said Northern Nevada will send more people to the Nationals this year than last. “It makes it a lot easier being so close.”
He hopes some of the club’s fencers will advance in the tournament: “Among the younger fencers, I think Jacob Behymer-Smith has got a good chance; Matt Slagle may have pretty good chances, as well. Both are sabre. Jacob has a lot more experience as a sabre fencer and has fenced nationally quite a bit.”
Kulik says there are no locals competing in the Pan American Zonal Championships, and he does not have high hopes that any local athletes will qualify for the 2012 Olympics.
“At this point, no,” he says. “[These local competitors] are largely for the National squads. Eric has got several of the American squads fencing with his group. I got an email yesterday from the Chilean team asking if we could provide practice space starting the 28th or 29th. We’ll also probably be getting the Panamanian squads between the two of us. So, we’ll both be providing training space for a couple of the foreign teams at both locations—RSB and HD.”
Currently, the only institutions teaching fencing in Northern Nevada are the Silver Blades Fencing Academy and Momberg’s own High Desert Fencing Alliance. The former is owned and operated by the Reno Silver Blades Fencing Club, which is one of Reno’s oldest athletic clubs, established in 1947.
An old warehouse, the Club’s practice space looks something like a high school gymnasium. The hardwood floor is painted with several long blue strips, worn from years of dueling fencers traversing the surface. Electronic scoring machines—first introduced to the sport in 1936, which consequently altered the sport forever—are placed throughout the building. Old swords, masks and uniforms hang on the wall, waiting for a chance to cut and protect. However, even though weapons and armor surround the patrons, the mood is more cordial than combative.
“Prêt. Allez,” the referee says, cuing the two duelists in the exhibition match to begin.
Joaquin Tobar of El Salvador and Eileen Grench of Panama face one another on the piste, the 14-meter-long and between 1 and a half and 2 meters wide strip that is the fencers’ battleground. Sabres at the ready, at the cue from the referee, the two spring to action.
Grench appears to attack first, pressing Tobar back. Their weapons collide twice with a crash.
After a short second, the electronic scoring machine sounds off with a beep. The first bout of the demonstration has ended, Tobar has landed a hit, and the guests applaud.
“Tobar, 1-0,” says the scorekeeper.
The action is too fast for an untrained eye, and it’s obvious why experienced fencers find Hollywood representations of fencing, like The Princess Bride, so amusing—because quite frankly, matches never go down the way they do in the movies.
Modern fencing recognizes only three swords for competition: foil, épée and sabre. That means no rapiers such as Inigo Montoya’s. The foil and épée earn points only when a button on the end of the weapon is depressed, meaning only thrusting attacks can score. Furthermore, the amount of pressure required to register a point is said to be equivalent to the amount of pressure a blade needs to penetrate skin, thereby providing a realistic simulation of a duel. The sabre, conversely, is a cutting weapon, meaning athletes can score not only with the tip, but with the edge of the blade, as well. By increasing the point-earning area of the sword, sabre fencing is regarded as the fastest of the three weapons.
The agile movements were beyond a neophyte’s ability to keep track. In fact, due to the speed, before the advent of electronic scoring, five referees were required for every match. One of the guests explained that as Grench advanced, her first attack was met with a parry-riposte, or a block followed by an attack.
Diving head first into any sport can be a humbling experience, and those who think they’ve learned something of fencing from movies will discover The Princess Bride has done them wrong.
“Prêt. Allez,” says the referee, cutting the air with his hand, signaling the start of the next bout.
Tobar immediately lunges forward, extending his right arm to full length. The electronic beep sounds.
“Grench 1-1,” the scorekeeper says.
“That was a stop-cut,” says an onlooker. The sabre stops the attack and cuts the cuff, a kind of hit often missed before the electronic scoring machine became standard practice. Consequently, with all the rules concerning scoring in the sport, the electronic scoring machine did for fencing what instant replay did for football.
A study reported by U.S. News World & Report showed the tip of a fencer’s weapon to be the second fastest moving object in Olympic sports, slower only than a marksman’s bullet. Thus, by diminishing the sport’s reliance on referees, the game has become more athletic and less formal.
“Now, as hits that were previously unseen due to human error become the norm, the level of presentation and form starts to go down, and the level of athleticism starts to come up,” says Momberg.
In addition to an increase in athleticism, the sport has also experienced an increase in interest. In fact, according to recent data from the USFA, the junior age group at 12,783 is at its highest population ever. That’s more than half of the entire USFA membership with a total population of 23,215. What’s even more astonishing is the growing number of professional coaches, which can be one of the biggest indicators of growth in a sport.
“Ten years ago, full-time fencing coaches were few and far between,” recalls Momberg. “The only full-time professional coaches were retired European pros and ex-world champions.” Thus, with almost 800 registered coaches as of 2010 in the United States Fencing Association alone, the demand for qualified instruction is undoubtedly increasing.
The sport requires physical conditioning, mental preparation, technical skills and tactical sense. Beyond these requirements of any athlete, however, fencing is a martial art, and carries with it an intrinsic sense of individual competition.
“It’s one thing to be in a soccer game and your team loses, or to have that game-winning free throw, and you miss it,” says Momberg, remembering something a friend once said. “But it’s entirely different when you are the only person there—and not only are you the only person there, but it’s a combat sport—and if you lose, you got physically dominated by another human being, with a weapon. That’s a whole different psychological … blow, for lack of a better word.”
And with some of the best fencers from the Americas meeting in Reno next month, the competition will be fierce.
For people who wish to see the action and check out this Olympic qualifier, July 3-9 are the days to be there. The Hall of Fame induction ceremony will take place on the July 3 at 7:30 p.m., which costs $20 to attend. The competitions, however, are open to the public, free of charge.
And who knows, maybe one of these serious athletes will have the presence of humor to walk up to their opponent before the match, shake his or her left hand, and say the classic line from the memorable, if inaccurate, movie: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”