Chess on Your Feet

Students find a marriage of intellect and athleticism with the Wildcat Fencing Club

Fall 2023
Two members of the Wildcat Fencing Club practicing. The Wildcat Fencing Club was founded in 2009.

The Wildcat Fencing Club was founded in 2009.

Chris Richards

 With masks shielding their faces and bodies suited in white uniforms, rows of fencers ready their blades for attack. Soon the room drones with frequent beeps announcing each touch made and point earned. The dance between opponents lasts less than nine minutes, yet in that time countless calculations are made and responded to with explosive lunges and skillful parries.

This is the scene three days a week at Wildcat Fencing Club practice.

The club operates out of Still Point Fencing, a facility just a few miles off campus that is co-owned by Jay Fowler ’13 and Nick Going ’12. Now the team’s head coach, Fowler founded the fencing club at the University of Arizona in 2009 while he was a student. Starting with only four members, the club grew rapidly and had upward of 60 members before COVID halted club sports. Today, Wildcat Fencing has nearly 20 members and is once again growing.

“Fencing is a great sport, great exercise, and the community here is wonderful; everybody is extremely welcoming,” says club president Jack Greger, a bioinformatics and ecology and evolutionary biology major. “That’s something I felt when I first joined this club.”

The club welcomes fencers at all levels, from top-ranked veterans to complete beginners.

“It helps create a supportive environment, because we get a perspective of all the levels of fencing,” Greger says. “It’s really cool, because you can learn and grow from each other. Anybody can become a mentor.”

Jackson Norbutas, a civil engineering major, has been fencing since he was 10 years old and enjoys taking on the role of mentor to others in the club. “I’m actually training right now to be a coach,” he says. “I’ve been a nationally ranked fencer for about five years, and after college I want to branch out into coaching because I really enjoy helping other people improve.”

Greger, who started fencing fairly recently, says he’s found there are a lot of lessons to be learned that aren’t available in other sports he participated in during high school, such as football and track. Coming to the university, he was looking for something new and put all his effort into fencing.

“The sport requires extreme patience and focus,” Greger says. “It can be daunting at first, because the learning curve is steep. You have to have a good perspective and mindset, because you’re going to go out there and get destroyed for a few months — and that’s just part of the learning process. But once you start getting it, things start clicking and it’s really rewarding.”

The fencers appreciate the club’s supportive community and how it has helped curb the challenges of starting a new sport.

“I felt like people were happy to advise me and walk me through everything,” says Anya Moseke, an English major. “It’s no secret that fencers tend to be on the nerdier side, and I felt at home with people who have similar interests and inclinations toward subjects as I do.”

“I really found my family here,” agrees Julia Davis, a natural resources major. “It’s amazing just to be encouraged by my friends and see them every single day.”

Davis has been fencing for seven years and participated in basketball and track before taking up the sport.

“The reason I stuck with fencing was because it’s not a team sport; it’s very individual based,” she says. “I like it because I focus on myself. You can support your teammates and cheer them on, but there’s no real stress on them because you win individually, and as a team we just encourage one another.”

Moseke, who also enjoys dance and running, says she comes to fencing practice just as much for the social aspect as for the physical exercise.

“I’m really drawn toward elegant and emotive things, like poetry and modern dance,” Moseke says. “And I felt like fencing was one of the few sports that feels very personal and based in problem solving.”

She says there is beauty in watching fencers in action, noticing the different styles and aesthetics that emerge through their athletic performances. “It’s been nice,” she says, “seeing my improvement reflected in the way others fence me, which is something that’s more unique to the sport of fencing.”

Some fencers rely on explosive attacks and agility, while others take on a defensive and opportunistic approach. In épée fencing, the entire body is the target, from head to toe. Fencers try to sneak in touches on the foot or curve to hit the opponent’s side with the tip of the blade. A fencer’s physical abilities must also be complemented with mental acuity.

Lindsey Barney, a biochemistry and finance major, likes to watch opponents fence before facing them in a tournament. She observes their habits on the fencing strip — the playing area, also called the piste — and makes notes to adapt her strategy.

“It’s really like physical chess,” she says. “You can see the gears turning in somebody’s mind when they’re looking at their opponent and trying to adjust their strategy to be able to get more touches. I’m a very analytical and logical person, and being able to transport that into a physical sport really appealed to me.”

Barney wishes that more people knew how accessible fencing can be. “It’s portrayed as a very posh, rich-people sport, and it really isn’t. It’s quite accessible to a lot of people. And I also wish that more people knew that fencing is open to everybody — any fitness level, any body shape. We have all of it at our club.”

For Wildcats, taking up fencing is as easy as coming to practice. The club provides all the equipment that students need to get started, and they can take several free classes to ensure it’s a good fit before making any sort of financial commitment to the club.

The lessons of fencing extend beyond tournaments, as club members apply the skills learned on the piste to their personal lives.

“When you start fencing, you tend to notice people’s body language, because you want to recognize their tells for certain moves,” Barney explains. “And that has made me more in tune with how other people are feeling, because I’ve learned to be able to read the minute changes in people’s body language.”

Moseke recalls her first tournament and a conversation with another fencer about being new to the sport. “She said something that stuck with me. She said, ’Let’s be honest, you have nowhere to go but up. So give it all you’ve got: Just throw yourself at your opponent if you’ve been pushed to the end of your strip — you’ve got nothing to lose.’ And that’s something I’ve translated to my daily life.”

For Greger, fencing teaches him about gradual victories and focus.

“With both fencing and school, there’s not a huge payoff in one day,” Greger says. “This sport is very intellectual. Precise focus is required. It’s similar to a testtaking environment: You have to steel your focus and be able to perform under pressure.”

“It’s not like in track, where if you’re just a faster runner, you’re going to win. With fencing, there’s so many variables that you just can’t control,” Norbutas says. “You have to look at it objectively and be like, ’I may have lost, but I can improve from this.’”

Davis focuses on the process, not the product. “A lot of fencers focus on the end product, and they get discouraged really quickly. If you don’t win, it sucks,” she says. “Instead, focus on the process, not the end goal.”

As she reflects on her growth over the years as a fencer, Davis realizes she’s gained a lot of confidence through the sport.

“It’s allowed me to be a leader and someone who encourages others,” she says. “It’s really helped with my self-confidence and not being afraid to try things. Plus, being on the fencing team, I have the opportunity to encourage girls to join this mostly male-dominated sport, which is really important to me.”

The atmosphere of a fencing tournament is one of total camaraderie, despite the competitive nature of the sport. Even during intense bouts, fencers can be seen giving knowing smiles to one another when points are scored, as if to say, “That was a good one.” As Davis says, “On the strip, you’re enemies, and off it you’re best friends.”

With the eventuality of graduation on their minds, many of the fencers are enthusiastic about continuing to fence after college. Greger says that there are fencing communities outside of collegiate clubs for fencers of all levels.

“I’m not stopping,” he says. “I’ll be fencing for the rest of my life.”

Learn More

To learn more about the Wildcat Fencing Club, visit the link below. 

Any Tucson local can try out the sport through Still Point Fencing at the link below. 

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