WASHINGTON, April 4, 2013 — The following is a list of senior level fencers who picked up multiple weapons and succeeded at the national/international level in more than one discipline:
1. Michael Marx
2. Nick Chinman
3. Andras Horanyi
And that’s it. Of the three athletes listed above, each began in foil and was able to successfully transfer his skills to epee. While not to discourage those who enjoy dabbling in multiple weapons, the evolution of each discipline, both in footwork, the mental game, timing, preparatory and closing actions, and right of way interpretation have made it difficult to attain mastery in more than one weapon. Here’s why:
Why epeeists can’t fencer foil/sabre: Because counter-attacks are such a central part of the modern epee game, epee fencers are conditioned to use this action to fend off an opponent in their preparation or attack.
Foil and sabre have “right-of-way” rules, which mean (in simplest terms) that a fencer who starts an attack is awarded the touch. Thus, a counter-attack will result in a touch against unless it hits the attacker in his/her preparation. Epee’s footwork tends to be more calculated, as a misstep could result in a toe touch, leaving epeeists at a disadvantage to the speed and change of direction associated with foil and sabre.
Further, epeeists are conditioned to small hand movements, making the preparatory actions in epee drastically different from the other two weapons, which require quicker movement of the blade/point and greater use of the wrist than epeeists are used to.
Why foilists can’t fence sabre/epee: The forte of a foilist’s transferability to epee lies primarily in strong bladework. Chinman, for instance had impenetrable defense, and once caught in his blade, there were few who could escape.
The shortfall, however, on most foilists who try epee is two-fold: too large in the preparatory actions, exposing the wrist and other short targets, and not being prepared for a remise/secondary closing action if their first attack falls short.
David Sach, a coach at the Boston Fencing Club, the former U.S. Fencing High Performance Director and former British sabre world team member, noted that “Since the late 90s the differences in the weapons have become more pronounced. With the rule changes and the changes in the interpretation of the rules for the right of way, weapons (foil and sabre) have drifted further apart.
The attack being given now on the front foot and the interpretation of the attack being dependent so much on the hand in sabre before the Beijing Olympics made a distinct difference between foil and sabre. These differences made the ability for an athlete to be a world class foilist and sabreur almost impossible, the difference in tactics and timing became too great.”
Why sabrists can’t fence epee/foil: The same shortcomings a foilist experiences in fencing epee are applicable to sabre as well; in that the preparatory actions are far too large and the footwork is less calculated, exposing sabrists to counter-time and greater exposure of short targets. There is also the simple fact that sabre touches are (mostly) landed using the side of the blade, unlike epee and foil which require the fencer to stick their point on the opponent.
David Sach also noted the mental differences in sabre and epee: “Sabre and Epee are so different in terms of tactics and mentality that changing from one weapon to the other is very difficult. Sabre is a fast paced weapon with short focus and actions are over in a matter of seconds.
“Epee requires greater focus and patience for a longer duration. Second intention actions are more important than direct explosive actions as there is no right of way.”
Conclusion: In short, fencers striving to excel at the national level or beyond should choose one weapon and stick to mastering that. While foilists attempting epee have the most success trying a secondary weapon, even that transferability is questionable at best.
“As a sport, fencing has evolved and progressed more from being an amateur sport to a professional sport now. The skills and training required to be dominant on a world stage have also increased. As a result, the ability to switch between weapons at a high level has decreased,” Sach said.
Ilya Lobanenkov, an epee coach at DC Fencers Club echoes Sach’s sentiment: “If they want a workout and a social hour, mixing weapons is fine. Competing successfully at anything beyond a regional level in more than one weapon is unrealistic,” but also noting that “…fencers should do what they want to do. That means they should figure out what they want and then commit to making it happen.”
Damien is a competitive fencer and volunteer assistant coach at DC Fencers Club in Silver Spring, Md. Damien was the coach of a London 2012 Olympic Athlete in Modern Pentathlon. He is an A-rated epeeist and was a member of the 2012 North American Cup Gold Medal Men’s Epee Team. He was recently selected as a member of the world Maccabiah team, representing the USA.
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