ND Free Pass: Fencing

Author: Carol Schaal '91M.A.

Carol Schaal

When Notre Dame’s Joyce Center fieldhouse is the site for home fencing meets, the ND website says the venue has “an intimate atmosphere.” Playing-area strips are laid down for the matches, and bleachers and chairs are scattered around.

Intimate must mean there’s little room for spectators.

That’s probably okay, because fencing doesn’t seem to attract a lot of fans. After attending parts of the 2011 Notre Dame Duals, women on Jan. 29 and men on Jan. 30, I have an idea why.

Consider the compulsory figures required in skating competitions until July 1990 — the technical maneuvers that gave figure skating its name. Skaters carved such patterns as a figure 8 on the ice, and the resulting loops were judged by some arcane parameters.

Not a big hit on TV. As the Associated Press said after the International Skating Union voted to ban the school figures as part of competitions: “Many competitors feel that compulsories . . . are tedious, and boring to perform and watch.”

That does not mean they didn’t require dexterity and control, mental toughness and solid skills. But the figure 8s were no match for the allure of the double axels and triple lutzes and layback spins of free skating programs.

And so, fencing.

You will see a live-action game of strategic finesse, what has been called “physical chess,” as competitors chase and withdraw, lunge and run, stab and feint, and display intricate footwork and calculated swordplay, all confined to a 14-by1.5-meter strip.

I did try to appreciate it. Really. But I wanted Zorro slashes and Errol Flynn derring-do and Three Musketeer swashbuckling — and I got figure 8s.

Some of the problem may have been the “intimate” venue itself. The few sets of bleachers I saw were covered with coats, backpacks and other items belonging to the fencers, and most of the chairs were used by fencers waiting their turn to joust on one of the 12 strips. When I finally found a seat, my view of the closest match was blocked by people standing in front of the strip.

Food stations were everywhere — on tables set around the side of the arena, on some of the benches and chairs. During a break, I asked one of the officials at an oversized podium overlooking the venue if the food was free for all. That, I thought, might be a way of attracting fans.

He stabbed me with a look of scorn. “That food is for the referees and fencers,” he said icily. Excuse me for asking.

On both days the Irish fencers easily cut down the collegial competition — Air Force, Cleveland State, Detroit, Florida, Lawrence, Northwestern, Swarthmore and Wayne State. And both the men’s and women’s ND teams retained their top rankings in the sport.

Those Irish fencers: I salute them. But clearly, when it comes to watching fencing, I just don’t get the point.

Check out ND Free Pass for a spectator’s sampling of the less-heralded side of Notre Dame competitions: the rowing and the running, the putting and the spiking. Carol Schaal is managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email her at schaal.2@nd.edu.