Crouching weirdos, hidden fencing

As a young girl, with an ambitious, athletic and empowered mother, I was signed up for many sports classes. I soon found out, through softball, soccer, basketball, even gymnastics, that I wasn’t coordinated, fast, competitive, or even flexible. I would pout on the way to practices, count down the minutes of games, and await with anticipation the end-of-season pizza parties which would inevitably reward 6 weeks of hanging on for dear life. Which is how, at the end of a very long list of possible athletic talents, I came to rest my sights on fencing.

Fencing is a weird sport to talk about. First of all, chances are, people won’t even know what it is. All too often, well-meaning moms or, more frequently, dads, will assume I’m building literal white picket fences. I’ll save you the trouble: not even close.

To speed things along, here’s how Wikipedia describes it: “Fencing is a sport in which two competitors fight using ‘rapier-style’ swords, called the foil, the épée, and the sabre; winning points are made through contact with an opponent.” It’s a pretty basic concept, but the long, awkward conversations in which I have to find multiple ways to describe it to confused and regretful houseguests (see: Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party) say otherwise.

The next reaction, usually delivered in that high-pitched, condescending tone that teenagers all know and hate, is, “that’s so cooool!” Adults, just because it isn’t football or soccer doesn’t mean you get to squeal different synonyms for the word “unique” at us.  We’re fencers, not unicorns. My problem isn’t even the forced excitement, it’s the unwillingness to admit that you have nothing else to say on the subject. There are painfully few people who know enough to ask about weapons, or new rules, or their favorite fencers, and even fewer who care enough to ask about anything at all. Adults need to get their shit together when it comes to fencing.

That said, “unique” might be the kindest description of fencers. I knew I was in for it when I saw that was about the most socially adept person in the gym. We fencers are — there’s no other way to put it — an odd bunch. Most high school varsity sports hold the promise of their players being considered cool, or at least cool-adjacent. Fencing, not so much. Let me put it this way: most of the school is unaware that a fencing team even exists, because, even if you’re in it, you don’t advertise it.

So what is so weird? First things first: in high school sports, looks matter. Football wouldn’t look half as badass (not that it is) as it does without the muscle-padding protective gear. In fencing, though, our masks are more reminiscent of fly eyeballs. The head-to-toe white canvas jackets and pants make us look like Renaissance knight paper dolls. In addition, fencing is the sporting world’s island of misfit toys. Sure there are some ‘real’ athletes, but most are like me- kids who couldn’t hack it in more ~mainstream~ sports. In fact, it’s even a perk sometimes to be gangly and oddly thin- more wingspan, less target area for an opponent to hit. Overall, our already-mostly-poor social skills don’t quite get developed at the same rate- it’s a pretty individual thing, just you and your opponent. All in all, we’re all pretty much some degree of weirdo, although we technically fall under the ‘varsity athlete’ umbrella.

That being said, my fellow weirdos are irreplaceable. Without all the external pressure from a cutthroat sport (like Connecticut soccer, the white-boy sport to end all white-boy sports), our teammates can actually become friends, close friends, rather than just competitors. Some of my closest friends are my team members, and if the price we pay for keeping the team sacred is listening to ignorant adults and snotty kids talk about how “special” it is, then we’ll gladly take that. We wouldn’t trade fencing for anything in the world.

Five things you SHOULD say to a teenage fencer:

  1. What’s your weapon? This demonstrates interest without making you sound completely clueless to the person you’re talking to. Chances are, they’re pretty passionate about their weapon and will be more than happy to discuss it.
  2. I heard they call it ‘physical chess’. This is true! Aside from the ‘strategy’ similarities, fencers tend to be some of the smartest athletes.
  3. What’s your academy? Just like ‘what’s your weapon?”, this shows you know a little something about the sport. Most fencers, even basic high school ones, practice in the off-season at an academy. More likely than not, they love theirs (there are some fierce rivalries) and will tell you all about it.
  4. Who’s your favorite fencer? Although fencers aren’t as famous as football players, there are some incredible, inspiring fencers out there. Check out Ibtihaj Muhammad, who recently had a barbie made in her image.
  5. Fencing seems really difficult. We often get brushed off, since our nerdy rep precedes us. But fencers work just as hard, if not harder, than most other athletes. Give us some credit!

Gillian Rooney is a teenage American comedian and writer based in Connecticut.

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