In a space usually dominated by pickup basketball at North Grounds Recreation Center, talk of blade angulation, parries and attacks rings out as 20 members of the Virginia Fencing Club begin practice. The group’s “hell week” guest coach, University of Florida club coach Bruce Capin, exhorts the various fencers to be more deliberate in their attacks and retreats. While Capin works with individual fencers, the sharp metal clang of other athletes lunging and striking their practice partners on the flank or face guard resonates inside the gym.
This is where the season kicks into high gear for the VFC’s fencers, many of whom never fenced before entering college. It’s a group that embodies the Jeffersonian ideal of student self-government.
“For me that’s been one of the most enjoyable aspects,” says club president Elyse Klova (Col ’10). “We’re able to make those decisions, and we’re not beholden to anyone.”
Without a varsity coach, the club relies largely on guests like Capin who come in during the critical “hell week”—intense practices over winter break to prepare for the spring season—to help point members in the right direction. From there, the athletes take over, helping other fencers between their own matches.
Clearly, that formula is working. The women’s sabre team of Klova, women’s captain Mary Ball (Col ’09) and Tanya Onyshchenko (Engr ’08) finished third in 2008 at the South Atlantic Conference tournament. Tanesha Parker (Col ’10) also placed well enough to earn an individual medal in women’s épée. The women’s squad followed that performance a month later with an overall team title at the Virginia Intercollegiate Women’s Fencing Association Championships.
That success has made it easier for the club to attract new fencers.
“It’s not as much of a struggle to fill up teams anymore,” says men’s captain Rob Pfister (Col ’10).
The men’s team hasn’t had as much wide-ranging success, but the future looks bright. Two men’s épée fencers, Drew Meyer (Col ’12) and Robby Shaughnessy (Col ’12), with five and seven years of experience, respectively, recently joined the squad.
The club also makes its own travel plans to far-flung destinations, which include a trip to Wisconsin for this year’s Collegiate Club Fencing Championships.
For most members, that sacrifice is well worth it—and it’s paid dividends beyond fencing’s scope.
“I was really quiet and really shy, and I never talked,” says Ball. “Now I’m women’s captain and I have a lot more confidence—and that’s because of the team.”