En garde: continuing the tradition of fencing at PSU

Harry Starr—a nationally-ranked fencer with 28 years of experience—gave his class, located in Portland State’s Campus Recreation Center, instructions on the proper footwork and techniques of fencing. He had them stand side by side on one of the painted lines in the room and showed them how to get into the “en garde” position.

“Why is this the best position to be in?” he asked, addressing the class. “Because you have already cut where your opponent can strike you in half.”

Fencing, one of the oldest modern sports, is steeped in tradition and sportsmanship. It is one of only four sports to be included in all modern Olympic Games, which began in Greece in 1896. Fencing’s history can be traced back as early as the 12th century when warriors would learn how to wield a sword for combat. Modern fencing is no longer about trying to harm your opponent, but about trying to outsmart them.

“You have to make very fast decisions about, ‘Am I attacking? Am I defending?’” Starr said. “It’s not so much about strength or speed as it is about being smart. If you can be tactically aware, you can be successful as a fencer.”

Since fencing is not based solely on physical endurance, people of all ages can learn to fence.

“It’s a great lifetime sport,” Starr said. “I’ve fenced everyone from 7 to 77. When you have more experience, you are able to make those decisions better. You never stop learning about fencing.”

Starr said the ability to constantly learn new things is one of the key reasons he loves the sport.

The Portland Metro area is home to many fencing clubs as well as famous Olympic fencers, which is why PSU’s Fencing Club feels right at home in the City of Roses.

“The cool thing about Portland is that it’s a great fencing town,” Starr said. “We have the most successful club in the country [located] in Beaverton. Mariel Zagunis trains in Beaverton.”

Mariel Zagunis is a two-time Olympic gold medalist in women’s sabre. She medaled in the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics and is the first American in 100 years to win a gold medal for Olympic fencing in 100 years.

While members of the fencing club are either beginners or have some prior knowledge of the sport, Starr hopes to get them entered into tournaments around the area.

“Portland is a great fencing town with lots of opportunities for people to compete, so I definitely hope we’ll be able to get at least some folks out to some tournaments this year,” Starr said. “There are women’s and men’s tournaments, but there are also a lot of mixed tournaments. It goes back to that idea of being aware in tactics; it’s not necessarily about physical strength and speed.”

When the members eventually go out to compete, though, it may not necessarily be against other college students.

“It’s mostly going to be open tournaments, so they’ll be fencing against other community fencers who have been training at other clubs,” Starr said. “But I would love to, down the road, build that intercollegiate competition.”

While fencing is known by many people, not everyone knows specifics about the sport. While strength and agility are important, it is also a mental sport where the fencer must think quickly on their feet to avoid getting hit with their opponent’s blade.

This may be easier said than done; a fencing blade—whether it be a foil, a sabre or an epee—is the second fastest moving object in sports. The first? A marksman’s bullet.

A lot of people outside the sport tend to think of fencing as something they see in a movie or TV show, like Pirates of the Caribbean or Game of Thrones.

“With theatrical fencing, the difference is we’re here to hit people. They’re doing it specifically not to hit people. It’s apples and oranges,” Starr said. “It’s fun to watch; I love swashbuckling movies. I try to not be too critical of those kinds of things because it’s for a different purpose.”

Don’t be fooled; when you step foot in a fencing club meeting, you won’t leave being able to brandish a sword like Captain Jack Sparrow.

“The thing we get when people come in the door is people say ‘Oh, fencing! I’ve always wanted to try that.’ and then they learn it’s not really like the movies,” Starr said.

Those who are interested in learning more about PSU’s  Fencing Club are encouraged to contact Sean Glass at [email protected].