The Basics of Fencing
• Fencing competition takes place on a court
called a "strip;' six feet by 40 feet.
The object is to touch your
opponent with the weapon
before you are touched, or
"hit." Touches in modern
fencing are scored electrically -
the weapons and the fencer's attire
are wired to lights that signal the bout official.
• Foil, epee and sabre are the three weapons used, and most fencers concentrate
on one weapon.
• The bout winner is the first fencer to score 15 touches in direct elimination,
or five touches in preliminary play. A direct elimination match consists of
three three-minute periods.
• The foil has a flexible blade about 35 inches long, weighing less than a pound.
Touches are scored with the tip of the blade, to the opponent's torso only.
The fencer wears a metallic vest called a lame, which covers the valid target,
so that a valid touch will register on the scoring machine. The machine has a
red light for one fencer and a green for the other, to indicate valid touches.
A touch landing outside the valid target area is indicated by a white light.
Off-target hits don't count, but they stop the action temporarily.
• The epee (EPP-pay), the descendant of the dueling sword, is similar in length
to the foil, but weighs about 27 ounces, with a larger guard and a much stiffer
blade. The entire body is the valid target, hence, the epee fencer does not
wear a lame.
• The sabre is the modern version of the slashing cavalry sword and is similar
in length and weight to the foil. Unlike the other weapons, a sabre fencer can
score a hit with the tip or the edge. The target is from the bend of the hips,
both front and back, to the top of the head (which simulates the desired target
on a cavalry rider, since the object was to kill the rider and preserve his horse
as a prize). The sabre fencer's uniform includes a lame and a mask with a
metallic covering, since the head is a valid target.
• A right-of-way rule is used to determine a winner in apparently simultaneous
attacks by two fencers in foil and sabre. Right-of-way is the differentiation
between offense and defense, made by the referee. The difference is important
only when both the red and green lights go on at the same time. When this
happens, the winner of the point is the one who the referee determined was
on offense at the time the lights went on. Epee does not use the right-of-way
in keeping with its dueling origin-the fencer who first gains the touch earns
the point. Or, if both epee fencers hit within 1/25th of a second of each other,
both earn a point.
• The fencer being attacked defends by use of a "parry," a motion used to
deflect the opponent's blade, after which the defender can make a"riposte,"
an answering attack. Thus, the fencers keep changing between offense and
defense. When a hit is made, the referee stops the bout, describes the actions
and decides whether to award a touch.
• The essence of the competition is a continuous decision-making process
between what Ron Miller calls "fight or flight," as the fencer alternately seeks
a safe distance from the other's attacks, then breaks the distance to gain the
advantage for an attack.
Throughout the workout athletes
arrive late from afternoon labs, leave
early for meetings. One exercise requires
a partner, and a woman approaches the
man next to her, puts out her hand and
says, "What's your name?"
On the ground floor of Fetzer Gym,
right where the old Tin Can sat, college
sport still is like this. Students get
together after their work is done and
match sinew and wits. Those who
compete buy all their own equipment.
Few come to watch in awe. Success
isn't measured by banners in rafters,
and there's not a whole lot of incentive
to leave school a year or two early.
Grownups do not skip Sunday school
after this team loses to Poly Tech or
For 33 years, an intense athletic
contest that evolved from sword fighting,
a vague curiosity to most Americans,
has been Ron Miller's labor oflove.
He is good at it. Twice US. collegiate
coach of the year and holder ofseveral
national coaching positions, he is a
highly successful developer of winning
fencers from absolute scratch. Besides
the quality program he runs on a
shoestring, Miller has generated interest
by starting clubs away from the campus.
The fencers stay at or near the top of the
University's sports teams academically.
Eight ofhis alumni have coached college
programs. Miller has been one ofthe
leaders ofthe effort to squash the idea
that women are too delicate for fencing
- tlus season, women finally received
full NCAA recognition in all three
He has coached a national champion
Oohu Friedberg ' 83), 13 All-Americans
and five fencers who made the US.
national team. A woman barely five
feet high with no athletic background
saw Miller's"No Experience Necessary"
sign, and he sent her to the Olympics.
He holds a doctorate from UNC
(' 76) and he's the University's longest-
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