The good old days: A younger, more in-shape me takes to the strip in a high school fencing bout.
Olympic fencing matches ended Sunday, meaning I'm starting to come off my Olympic high. Sure, watching people like Michael Phelps or Gabby Douglas go for gold is exciting — but to me, it's nothing compared to the sights and sounds of two blades clashing.
I became interested in fencing the same way a lot of kids probably do: loving the sword fights in movies like "The Princess Bride" and "The Adventures of Robin Hood." I tried other sports like field hockey and softball, but nothing captured my heart like fencing.
Sadly, fencing is only discussed every four years, when the Summer Olympics come around, and is not viewed very highly by Americans. As Mike Wise put it in an article in The Washington Post last week, "no one but fencers cares about fencing after the Olympics are over" and "niche athletes need to savor the Games and smile more often for those two weeks ... because they really matter to most of us only every four years."
Wise is not alone in this rather dismissive view of the sport. Frankly, I think fencing takes more effort to understand than other sports. Also, because of all the required gear, it's not as visually sexy as beach volleyball or swimming, so often people don't take the effort to watch it.
But as a former "niche athlete" who fenced for eight years, I'm always excited to see the sport finally return to TV. I enjoy watching it with my fencer friends to talk about old times, and with my non-fencer friends and co-workers to explain what’s going on. Those who take the time to try it often find it really engaging.
Toshifumi Kitamura / AFP - Getty Images
U.S. fencer Mariel Zagunis, seen on the left, faced Ukraine's Olga Kharlan during the women's sabre bronze medal bout at the Olympics on Wednesday. Zagunis lost and placed fourth.
This year I felt more people than usual were talking about fencing, thanks to American sabre fencer Mariel Zagunis, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who was going for her third straight win in the individual competition and was also named the flag bearer for Team USA, an honor many Olympians dream of. Zagunis didn't medal, but the U.S. Olympic Fencing team didn't go home empty-handed; the U.S. women's epee team took home bronze on Saturday.
But you didn't get to see much of epee on TV; instead, sabre seemed to be the most featured television fencing event. In fact, it always seems to get the most attention of the three weapons (the other two being epee and foil). It is an obvious choice for TV because it’s faster and looks a lot more like the swashbuckling sword fighting people see in the movies.
By now you may be asking: What's the deal with all these weapons? Basically, foil, epee and sabre differ in shape, size, which part of the weapon you can hit your opponent with to get points, and the target areas on the body that you can hit. (To learn more, visit the United States Fencing Association website.)
In high school my coach almost switched me to sabre because I was fast and aggressive. Instead I stayed in foil and used those traits to my advantage.
As a dedicated foil fencer, I'll admit I'm biased towards the weapon and was sad not to see more of it on TV this year. Still, even watching the other weapons was enough to make me nostalgic. I miss not only the physical challenge of fencing, but the battle of wits against opponents. Combined, these two aspects made fencing much more challenging than any other sport I've tried.
But it's the people I met along the way that made the sport truly amazing: from the high school coach who taught me to face my fears, believe in myself, and never settle for anything less than 110 percent to the teammates who had my back and who I fought for in return. Not to mention the godlike Olympians I'll never forget meeting at various competitions: I glimpsed Zagunis at a college meet and once went head to head in a meet with Olympic foil fencer and Harvard alumna Emily Cross (I managed to get three points on her before she crushed me). Olympic fencers always left the rest of us in awe: These were the people representing us to the world and giving us a voice in America when no one else seemed to care.
I think 2012 has been a good year for "niche" sports, as Wise would label them. For example, NBC reported that archery was receiving bigger viewing numbers then usual; more people across the country seem to be interested in it thanks to movies like "The Hunger Games."
En garde! Here I am saluting my opponent before starting a college fencing meet as part of Tufts University's varsity team. There's nothing like the anticipation before a bout, saluting, putting on your mask and raising your foil!
But unlike archery, fencing is still ignored by most. Yet no one can convince me it's any less important a sport than those in the spotlight during the Olympics. While some people might like me to be a good little fencer and shut up for the next four years, I'm not going to. I'm thinking of dusting off my foil and getting back into competitive fencing. I'll also keep talking about it and encouraging people to give it a chance.
Yes, I'm biased, but to me it's the best sport. And if you think otherwise, try picking up a sword and see how it feels. After that, you won't be able to say anything's cooler.
TODAY.com producer Lisa Granshaw's fencing nickname in high school and college was Lil' Killa. Just as you shouldn't ignore niche sports, you also shouldn't underestimate short people!
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