Sabre-rattling: a closer look at Penn fencing

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK | A new perspective on a little-known sport

· February 11, 2014, 8:09 pm   ·  Updated February 19, 2014, 11:33 pm

Laura Francis | DP

In his fourth year, Penn fencing head coach Andy Ma and his fellow coaches consistently put together engaging practices for players on both squads. Training in the Dave Micahnik Fencing Facility, filled with new, state-of-the-art equipment, Ma has Penn fencing ready to continue its tradition of success. 


Clanging like pots and pans, the blades crackle and flick as two fencers vie for a chance to catch an opponent off guard.

To their left, another fencer repeats a series of lunges to improve footwork. On the opposite side, coaches work with individual players to sharpen technique.

In a state-of-the-art fencing center sporting electronic target simulators and championship banners, the Penn fencing team meticulously prepares for an upcoming tournament.

On a typical weekday afternoon, both the men’s and women’s teams progress through workouts, technical work and one-on-one bouts as the sun sets. The teams practice in a beautiful new space known as the Dave Micahnik Fencing Center, located across from the Hutchinson Gymnasium.

The practice begins with warm-ups including light jogging and other cardiovascular exercises. Then, the team circles up to stretch to prepare for the rest of the session.

The team lines up across the entire black and white padding of the floor and proceeds to work through a series of footwork drills. One of the coaches gives commands, such as “three steps forward and lunge,” that the fencers imitate as they move vertically down the floor. Many of these movements are common maneuvers in actual fencing bouts, including retreating, lunging, squatting and feinting. Some of the exercises even involve pairs of teammates.

As two fencers face each other, one squats, takes three steps forward and parries (blocks) with her arms before facing a return attack known as a riposte.

Elsewhere, senior Corey Novich feints, while sophomore Leland Bernstein scuttles backward with four quick steps. The process is repeated as the pair moves down the floor, and upon reaching the end, the partners switch places and return back to the starting point.

While drills carry on, head coach Andy Ma, along with assistant coaches Randall LeMaster and Mickey Zeljkovic , work with specific fencers off to the side of the floor where two training lanes are located. These seasoned instructors are never afraid to suit up for one-on-one training with the athletes, and each coach specializes in one of the three weapons used in the sport: the epee, the foil or the sabre.

Ma dons a white mask and black forearm protector for a one-on-one sabre session with senior Michael Mills , the NCAA champion in sabre last season. Ma advances to strike but Mills blocks the blow. The veteran goes for a touch on Ma’s torso and out-speeds the coach’s defense. The two back up and continue to work through progressions.

The team soon puts on its gear and splits up into pairs for one-on-one practice bouts. Fencers hook themselves to flexible wires that run from the ends of the floor to the backs of their uniforms.

The “white gowns” the team wears are actually made of wired mesh that register  touches electronically to a scoring system. In the Micahnik Center, above the dozens of narrow, numbered strips where bouts take place, are a series of electronic scoreboards that track the points as they are scored.

Wielding epee, freshman Adil Khan achieves a touch on sophomore Ayyub Ibrahim, causing the scoreboard to light up in yellow bars. With a foil in her hands, senior Wendy Zhao notches a touch on junior Luona Wang.

On this day, the team won’t lift weights as it recovers from the Philadelphia Invitational the previous weekend and prepares to travel to Evanston, Ill., for the Northwestern Invitational.

But with every repetition and training exercise on this day, the Penn fencing program works to maintain its storied tradition of success.

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