Fencing Olympic hopefuls tackle myths, strategy behind ancient sport

Five Canadian fencers have qualified for the Rio Games so far. And as cliché as it might sound, inspiration from Star Wars helped get some of them to the top level.

Shouting can be a key to success

Vincent Pelletier, right, one of Canada's top fencers, says Star Wars was an inspiration for him. (The Associated Press)

Leave it to a top Canadian fencer to cite the Lightsabre as his inspiration.

"I'm a huge Star Wars fan," said Vincent Pelletier, who finished 11th in epee at the 2013 world championships. Movies are why he started fencing, he added.

So far, five Canadian fencers have qualified for the Rio Games: Max Brinck-Croteau and Leonora MacKinnon in epee, Maximilien Van Haaster and Eleanor Harvey in foil, and Joseph Polossifakis in sabre.

Polossifakis secured his spot on Saturday after finishing 39th at the Seoul Grand Prix and is now set to make his Olympic debut in a sport that few Canadians know much about.

Fencing tends to attract a variety of people — many of whom use the sport to express themselves, according to some of Canada's best. "The fun thing is usually you see a translation from the personality to the fencing style," Pelletier said.

Fencers need to have a flair for the dramatic. They package artistic movement with a sharp mind in a sport that is quicker than you might think. And, there's a lot of yelling.

3 swords

There are three different kinds of swords in fencing: Epee, foil, and sabre, each modeled after a different purpose.

Epee is a thrusting weapon based on the duelling sword. "Epee is more tactical," said Pelletier.

The epeeist can score with a "touch" anywhere on the body and needs to be cautious. "You play games with the opponent trying to get direct reaction," said Pelletier.

"Foil might be more like a boxing or MMA fight where you have time to study the opponent but when it comes time to attack it's very quick," said Max Van Haaster, a national team foilist and named to Canada's team for Rio 2016.

Foil and epee are the most similar. The point or tip scores with both, but foil is a lighter weapon with a smaller guard and can aim only at the upper torso.

Then there's sabre — the modern version of the slashing cavalry sword, so sabreists can score with the edge of the blade and the point.

"It's the fastest one of the three," said Polossifakis.

In a sabre bout, it helps to gain the "attack priority" or right of way because if a touch happens simultaneously, the point goes to the aggressor (same as in foil).

This gets tricky because there's a judging element when it comes to determining the right of way.

  • Fun fact: The target area for sabre is anywhere upper body excluding the hands to mimic a cavalry rider on horseback.         

Strategic yelling

Fencers have a variety of body types but to be most successful, you must be mentally strong.

"It's a psychologically tough sport," said Polossifakis. He has to deal with referee decisions and re-focus in seconds. If momentum tips too far in favour of one competitor, a bout can end in a hurry.

"I like the mental side," said Van Haaster, "You're fighting against somebody but at the same time it's like a game."

That's where the yelling comes in. To sell the ref, discourage your opponent, and get really fired up.

Does it hurt?

Then there is the lunging towards someone holding a weapon.

"You override that natural fear," said Van Haaster, who said it rarely hurts to be hit. Fencers wear a fair amount of protection and the modern swords are more flexible.

It's important to maintain sound fundamentals under attack. "Stay poised and be able to retreat with the right technique and form, and not flinch." said Polossifakis.

​National team foilist Alanna Goldie is working on her retreat. "I hate going backwards so I just stand there and get hit," she said.

"It's challenging to make myself go against what I naturally want to do."