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Fencing for dummies: UNC fencing team breaks down rules for beginners

UNC fencer Jack Kambeseles pictured at the ACC Championship at Carmichael Arena on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. Photo Courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications.

The sport of fencing has two main objectives: hit and don’t get hit. Can’t be that hard, right?

In what can be described as a linear version of tag, fencing is a physically and mentally demanding sport that has created a presence within collegiate athletics for more than 40 years. 

Most schools have programs that consist of men’s and women’s teams who compete and travel together, while upper levels of competition, such as regionals, have fencers competing individually. UNC has both men's and women's fencing.

While many may see fencing as two people seeing who can strike each other first, there are more intricacies most people remain unaware of. Fencers use three different weapons, each having a different blade, set of rules and target. The ultimate goal across weapons is to score a touch, which is called by a referee. 

The épée requires fencers to hit their opponent with the tip of their weapon. Considered a point press weapon, the tip of an épée includes a small spring that sets off an electric sensor that validates the hit. In this game, you can hit your opponent on any part of their body, including their face mask. 

The foil, another point-thrusting weapon, is supposed to mimic a version of what nobility would do when training for duels. In this game, fencers can hit their opponents anywhere in the neck, torso, groin or back, the areas where most vital organs are located.  

The sabre is a weapon with no point and a cutting edge. The entirety of the blade can score a touch, and the valid target includes everything from the waist up, minus the hands. The game is meant to mimic when people would duel on horseback. 

Although the sport may not look very physically taxing at first glance compared to other sports, the physical component of fencing has evolved over time.  

“The sport itself has grown into being a lot more athletic,” UNC fencing head coach Matt Jednak said. “There’s a lot more motion, and the game itself is faster. You would be surprised at how much energy goes into training.” 

The mental component of the game is also crucial to success. Fencing involves a unique balance of physical and mental fortitude and requires athletes to be flexible against various different opponents with different playing styles.  

“It’s just you under the mask and you need to be able to think quickly on your feet,” junior foil Sofia Molho said. “You’re the only one who can make the decision in that moment, and that’s really exciting.” 

Junior épée Erica Oake agreed, adding that fencing challenges her in a "totally different way than anything else does".

“You have to focus on technique and finesse and it’s a lot of mind and body connection that needs to come together at the right time," she said. "You need to tune in a lot with yourself.”

Jednak said he thinks many people have a desire to try fencing, even if they are unaware of its intricacies.  

He said whenever he mentions he is a fencing coach, people always put their arm up and mimic the general motion as if they had a weapon in their hand, whereas if someone claims to be a basketball coach, people don’t often respond with a dribbling or shooting motion. 

“I think it’s very funny that deep down, there is a desire to want to do it even if they don’t know how,” Jednak said.  

@dthsports |

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