LINK: University of Chicago Magazine About the Magazine | Advertising | Archives | Contact
 LINK: IssueLINK:  featuresLINK:  chicago journalLINK:  investigationsLINK:  peer reviewLINK:  in every issue

:: By Ethan Frenchman, AB’08

:: Photography by Dan Dry

link:  e-mail this to a friend

Chicago Journal ::

Fenced in

With the bout director’s words, “Fencers ready…Fence!” feet quickly shuffle and flying steel clashes. In the background, Herbie Hancock’s jazz-funk song “Chameleon” follows Metallica’s thrash metal “Master of Puppets.” In the foreground mesh-faced students dressed in classic whites parry and thrust, stab and slash.

At this May 20 scrimmage on the Henry Crown Field House balcony, the Maroons met crosstown rival Northwestern University in what Chicago’s team president Gabriella Grisotti, ’09, heralded as a “Red Line Brawl,” after the El line that connects Chicago’s North and South sides. The U of C club team split the top four spots in each weapon—saber, épée, and foil—with the Wildcats.


A Maroon fencer spars against a Northwestern University rival at Henry Crown Field House in late May.


Chicago had a string of strong performances this year, culminating in a fifth-place berth at the U.S. Club Fencing Championships in early April. Along the way they defeated such squads as the United States Military Academy at West Point, Michigan State University, and the University of Texas at Austin.

“It didn’t hurt us that the U of C likes to fence,” says fourth-year Will Claybaugh, a former team captain. The club has 35 active members who attend student-led practices at least once per week—and the vast majority practice two hours daily. Indeed, many fencers say that the sport plays to Chicago’s strengths. “There are two [kinds of] people who really stick with it,” Claybaugh says: “those who love it as a sport or for the medieval, romantic, historical flair.”

Claybaugh enjoys its “chess-on-our-feet” appeal, as individual fencers use their intellect to predict and block offensive moves while looking for opportunities to strike their opponent on a 46-foot-long mat. Claybaugh was first drawn to fencing when, reflecting on his reading habits, he realized, “I wished I was living in the Renaissance to do the Renaissance man thing. If only the U of C had falconry.”

First-year Izzi Blachman-Biatch is one who loves the sport. At her first practice this past fall, she says, “it looked like a lot of fun—bashing people’s heads in and whatnot.” Now that she has “jumped into” fencing, attending daily practices and joining the team at tournaments, “my parents describe it to their friends as the physical manifestation of what I did in high school—policy debate,” she adds, “The rush that I get when I do debate is the same as when I fence. It’s very much this game with all of your body contributing to beat someone else—it’s very exciting.”

The fencing team claims its history dates to 1892, when the University’s founders “included fencing as one of the activities complementing the education and well-being of the ideal Renaissance student,” according to the team’s Web site. Evidence of U of C fencing traces to at least 1896, when, according to one Athletics Department document from the period, “classes to parry, thrust, and salute” were organized for students and faculty. In 1897 the squad had its first bout, against Chicago’s Vorwaerts Turnverein, a German athletic society for adult men. In a surprising showing, Chicago defeated the Vorwaerts Turnverein, 9–8.

Despite its long tradition, the team has struggled since its founding with funding. Three years after it became a varsity sport in 1908, lack of resources led coach Abel Moreau de Bauviere to leave for brighter prospects in South America. In 1996 budget cuts cost the team its varsity status.

Today the team embraces its club status, despite monetary constraints such as meager resources for equipment and travel. Students must also personally pay for lessons from the team’s professional coach, Bakhyt Abdikulov, formerly of Kazakhstan and the Soviet Union’s national fencing teams, who is widely credited for improving Chicago’s  individual fencers.

The group’s club status also makes it uniquely democratic. While the team attracts some high-school fencers, it is primarily composed of students with no experience, and experienced students train novices in the tricks of the different weapons. Beginners frequently volunteer their own suggestions when they believe they have discovered a useful tactic. At other schools, in contrast, varsity coaches frequently employ top-down training regimes, says Kraft. Turning varsity would “mean surrendering most of what makes the team great,” Claybaugh says: “the experimentation and the individual impact students can have.”