Fencing’s Next Generation Crosses Foils and Fights On
Walk into Marx Fencing Academy and two things grab your attention: the ringing of metal as students cross foils, and the wall of college banners that serves as a backdrop for sparring sessions. Bearing names like Harvard, Brown, Columbia, Tufts and Dartmouth, the brightly colored flags — reminders of the schools the academy’s alumni now attend — are impossible to miss at this Concord, Mass., studio.
The connection between fencing and top schools isn’t lost on area parents, says five-time Olympic fencer and academy owner Michael Marx. “The number-one sport for getting into schools is fencing,” Marx says of the sport’s athletes who go on to compete at the college level. “It’s a nice edge, no pun intended.”
What’s special about fencing is that anyone can do it, Marx says. “You can be a bad athlete but a great fencer if you work hard at it. You can use anything to your advantage — your height, your speed — and anything can be used against you.”
In addition, fencing is a fast-paced sport that’s appealing to today’s internet-obsessed generation. “It’s like a live video game. You’re always thinking, always moving, always on your feet,” Marx says.
Bob Bodor is director of member services for USA Fencing, the sport’s national governing body. He’s seen a 3 percent increase in overall participation in each of the past three years, he says. This past season — the long fencing season runs from August 1 to July 31 — the organization had 1,788 individual college students as members and nearly 100 clubs and NCAA programs.
Molly Sliney, a two-time U.S. Olympic fencer, has also seen an increase in interest. For years, Sliney has traveled from town to town in the Merrimack Valley, teaching a devoted following of students through recreation departments. In 2017, she and former under-17 world champion fencer Arpad Horvath opened a studio in Haverhill. Named Vivo Fencing Club (vivo is Hungarian for “fencer”), the studio sent 13 students to U.S. Fencing Nationals in its first year.
Sliney sees this as a golden moment for the sport. “The United States has some of the top fencers in the world in all three weapons,” she says. (Fencers compete using three types of swords — foils, epees and sabres.) But she isn’t necessarily teaching for the Olympics.
“Not everyone is going to be elite in this sport, but everyone can learn. It’s about life lessons,” she says — a way to teach values like grit, confidence and determination.
“In fencing, the hardest opponent is yourself, because you have to give yourself permission to win. It’s as much a mental game as it is a physical one.”
Fencing can be particularly good for girls, according to Sliney, because it’s one of the few sports where both sexes train and even compete against each other at the lower levels. “That crosses over in unexpected ways,” she says, noting that some of her older girls have become the leaders on her coed teams.
“I tell my students that I want them to excel, but I want them to compete with each other, not against. When you compete against, you pull your competitors down. When you compete with, you pull them up,” she says. “With the studio, I’m trying to create a home, so it’s not just about fencing, it’s about creating community and support.”
Like Marx and Sliney, Seacoast Fencing Club owner Chris Pullo sees the mental and social advantages of fencing, but he’s also quick to point out the physical benefits. Pullo, who came to fencing in college when a trashed knee ended his football career, recalls the thrill of finding out that fencing would fulfill a phys ed requirement. “I said, ‘I still get to hit people, but with swords? Sign me up!’ Fencing gave me everything I was looking for without breaking any more body parts.”
At Seacoast Fencing, which has locations in Manchester and Rochester, N.H., the more experienced students conduct drills and exercises, forcing them to be self-reliant and teaching them how to lead groups that are diverse in age and background. And the strenuous all-body workout that fencing provides is even more important at a time when many schools have cut or eliminated recess.
Despite all the benefits and current interest, Pullo still sees the sport fighting an uphill battle. “The trend that’s working against it is the incredible load kids are carrying. They’re taking Advanced Placement classes, honors classes, are in math clubs and rocket clubs, and those activities don’t leave a lot of time for a nonschool-oriented sport that is close to year-round,” he says. “I find that the kids who gravitate to fencing tend to be high achievers, but it’s harder and harder for them to find the time to do the training they need to be good.”
Making time for that training can help them succeed. “Fencing isn’t going to get them into a [top-tier] college if they don’t meet some fairly high standards, but if you have 1,000 kids applying for one spot, anything you can do for an edge is good.”
So Pullo will keep teaching as long as his students can find the time. “I tell them that success comes from hard work more than anything else, and talent will only take you so far. And any coach who tells you, ‘I can make you a champion,’ isn’t telling the truth. The only person who can make you a champion is you.”
Marx Fencing Academy
Vivo Fencing Club
Seacoast Fencing Club
Manchester and Rochester, N.H.