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Nouse Tries... Fencing

Alex Woodward fights to the death against York's Fencing Club

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Alex gets to grips with Wheelchair Fencing. Image: Luke Snell

For my first Nouse Tries, I was chosen to cover a sport that I had never really paid attention to. My only experience of fencing was back in 2016, watching it for five minutes in the Olympic Games and being hypnotised by the techno style of the arena.

Not that I haven't had the time to learn, however. Fencing is one of only five sports to be played in every Olympic Games since the first in 1896, yet compared to the other four, fencing receives relatively little publicity.

Walking into the Sports Arena, I saw what I thought were multiple people playing the exact same game. What I was in fact watching was three very different forms of fencing. The three types of fencing are based around the sword used; these are the foil, epee and sabre. The foil is the smallest of the swords available. When competing with it, your options for hitting your opponent are very limited, as you can only hit their torso or back with the top of your blade. Epee is the easiest to pick up for a newcomer as it is the slowest and the whole body is in play, with hits from the tip of your sword. Sabre is the second fastest sport in the Olympic Games behind rifle shooting. Points can be scored with any part of the sword on the upper part of the body.

When I started my first bout, I found that I couldn't use my original plan of standing back and waving my epee around frantically until I won (disappointing, I know). The reason for this is something that many don't appreciate about the sport: the amount of strategy and tactics that go into each game. For example, the right of way rule can make so much of a difference as to how you go into a game.

This states that if you're defending, the only way to score a point is to parry and then hit back. The removal of this rule means both players get a point if they happen to hit each other at the same time. The lack of a right of way rule in epee makes players naturally more defensive and slower, as you don't want to end up with both players constantly drawing (which was my first game experience). In sabre, there is the right of way rule and so you have a big advantage if you're on the attack, hence it is better to go faster, making the two very different. Positioning wise, planning your moves and footwork is incredibly important. One of the advantages of fencing is how easy it is to pick up, and that it's also incredibly fun from the get-go.

If I thought that thinking about footwork and positioning was hard, I was about to find the removal of these even harder. Wheelchair fencing is suited for everybody, regardless of whether they do or don't have any disabilities. I was lucky to get a personal lesson with Duncan Moyse, an Olympian and participant in the Invictus Games. The big difficulty with the wheelchair game was just how important it was to master the movements of the wrist. Duncan told me that people who had been fencing for a long-time struggled when going into the chair. Usually their wristwork takes a backseat to their footwork and positioning, but they of course cannot rest on this in the chair. It wasn't helping that I kept focusing on doing everything with the hand. Fencing is a game of seconds, yet wheelchair fencing has the potential to be a game of milliseconds, so shaving time is even more essential.

Fencing is more popular at universities than people think. Around 30 people attended on the night I went, but Duncan said he regularly sees clubs with 60 members. It's therefore surprising to hear it is still considered a minor sport by Sport England and that the money supply can be low. Fencing and especially wheelchair fencing, is a sport in dire need of money.

The cost of the professional wheelchair equipment there on the night was around £18 000. Due to cost disadvantages, of the 30 who attended, it was unlikely that more than four would make it to a professional level. The chances in the wheelchair game are around one in ten.

I wasn't sure what I was in for when I took the call to head to fencing. I considered it a bit of a confusing sport, one that would take too long to understand, and I assumed it wouldn't be much fun for an evening's trip. I was wrong.

Fencing isn't just waving a sword around. It's tactical and fun, it's easy to pick up but it always asks for more of you. It's a brilliantly run society, with high-performance athletes and people who just want to try it out. I would highly recommend it to anyone looking to pick up a new sport on campus.

If you're interested in giving fencing a go then email fencing@yusu.org or contact the club on Facebook.

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