Swarthmore Fencing: the best team you’ve never heard of

Quick, name the largest sports team at Swarthmore College. Chances are, your first answer was track, or possibly lacrosse or baseball. Unless you are one of the 72 members, or nearly 5% of the student body, that compete on the fencing team, you probably had little idea of the sport’s rapidly increasing popularity here.

Founded in 2007 by current Head Coach Marshal Davis, himself a former standout fencer at the University of Florida, Swarthmore has developed a nationally competitive program, competing successfully against the likes of Notre Dame, Air Force, Northwestern and, most recently, Army.

The success and popularity of the team is largely a result of the team’s collaborative atmosphere that promotes competitive opportunities for those who seek them, while giving newcomers the chance to experience the sport more recreationally. Davis explains that the team’s policy is that “everyone is welcome” to practice, be they “students, faculty or staff.” Although the team practices five times per week, fencers are only required to attend three times per week to compete in tournaments. Those seeking a less demanding commitment can receive physical education credit by attending practice twice a week.

This combination of competition and recreation is unmatched by any Swarthmore varsity team. While Davis emphasizes that those interested “still have the full varsity experience” – a sentiment reflected by the team’s national success – the team is committed to introducing as many people as possible to the sport.

The inclusive policy has bolstered the team’s ability to consistently recruit new members. While the team does recruit high school fencers, Davis estimates that 90% of members had no experience before college. The flexible practice policy helps to integrate these fencing newcomers into the sport at their own pace, substantially reducing the risk of signing up for the team. Sabre captain Catherine Martlin ’15 explains that, “our recent spikes in enrollment really have to do with the feel of the team: we’re pretty laid back and practice an eccentric sport.”

Davis, Martlin and Épée captain Valentina Garcia ’14 all likened fencing to “physical chess,” a comparison sure to resonate with intellectual Swarthmore students searching for an athletic pursuit. Martlin explains the sport’s ideal fit for the school’s culture, pointing out that, “most Swarthmore students are the type of people who are interested in the mental games that are involved in fencing … we try pretty hard to teach new people to revel in the ability to train your body to instinctually react in situations.”

Garcia emphasized the importance the team places on the mental aspects of the sport, explaining that, “you don’t need to be an amazing athlete to be a good fencer, you just have to be smart and learn how people will react in certain situations.” In fact, many Swarthmore fencers have no previous competitive athletic experience, making the team’s success a testament to members’ mastery of sport’s cerebral qualities.

Fencing is split into three weapon categories, foil, sabre and épée. Davis points out that these categories are as different from each other as “different events in track and field”, noting that each category has its own scoring method, target area, rules and uniforms. Consequentially, fencers must choose to specialize in just one of the three categories.

While specializing immediately may seem intimidating to newcomers, Davis believes that it is often possible to determine which event a prospective fencer will excel at based on personality traits. Though admitting that this personality-based distinction is imperfect, Davis generalizes that “extroverts with short attention spans” will be drawn to sabre, as this weapon category features constant back and forth slashing that places instincts above strategy.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, épée fencing often attracts “patient introverts” because the category requires a more “tactical” approach, with much time devoted to “jockeying,” the strategic positioning that precedes a touch. Foil resides somewhere in between the two, featuring more frequent touches than épée but does not permit the slashing characterized by sabre.

The diversity of events allows fencing to attract virtually any personality to the sport. Swarthmore has several fencers in each category, each of which has its own captain and coach.

The team’s effort to incorporate as many students as possible into the sport has paid off. Relying on a mix of experienced recruits and newly trained members, the team has secured invitations to several NCAA fencing events over the past several years. The team competes in the Southern Atlantic Conference (SAC), where it faces major Division I schools such as Virginia Tech, Clemson and Florida, among others. Far from backing down from these larger opponents, Swarthmore has enjoyed impressive success in these tournaments.

Davis highlighted several of the team’s most impressive performances. The Garnet have won the 18 team SAC Conference three of the past five years and posted finishes as high as 6th place at the National Championships. In a sign of respect for the team’s prowess, Swarthmore earned the right to host the 5th annual Swarthmore Invitational, which was held in October.

Martlin highlighted the team’s performance at SAC Championships last spring. The sabre captain explains that, “our squad was myself and two other sophomores. None of us had fenced before college and we beat out the Army team for silver. That whole tournament was rewarding because the day before, our Men’s Sabre team won gold.”

This performance was perhaps the epitome of the virtues of Swarthmore’s mix of experienced and new fencers. While Martlin’s squad was composed of relatively inexperienced fencers, they succeed because the men’s sabre team, in Martlin’s words, “been training us since we were freshmen.”

Swarthmore puts this supportive, collaborative team culture on visible display at every competition. Garcia explains that, “The Swarthmore team has always been known for being great about supporting one another while fencing by cheering at the ends of the strips during competitions. It makes it so much more rewarding to win an important bout knowing that they are there screaming in support.”

Having graduated several top-performing seniors, Swarthmore features a freshmen-laden team this season. While this youth has tempered expectations, the team has hardly taken a step back, scoring several impressive victories already.

In the team’s most recent tournament, the January 18th Army Invitational, Swarthmore held its own despite competing short-handed due to winter break and RA training. The tournament was an important development experience for the freshmen fencers, as Martlin pointed out, commenting that “we brought a lot of freshmen to fence for the first time and they had a great time and did well.”

This year’s young team brings the team’s commitment to development full circle. Having been molded into nationally competitive athletes by the upperclassmen before them, Garcia, Martlin and the rest of the team’s leaders now must mentor the large cadre of young recruits. The team’s captains fully understand the importance of this role. Martlin described taking a “teaching role on the team” as one of her most “rewarding moments” in her fencing career. For her part, Garcia attributed “a lot of what makes our team great” to the fact that “the advanced fencers largely teach the new fencers.”

With its 72 members, Swarthmore fencing is here in force. More importantly, the team’s commitment to development and teaching its younger members will ensure that the team will be as competitive the next four years as it has been the past four. “Physical chess,” it seems, is a perfect combination for Swarthmore students.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading