The Great Unwatched: Despite Little Attention, Men's Fencing Continues To Be A Force Kevin Smokler -------------------------- Special to The Gazette It's Monday at the Athletic Center and sophomore Jeff Mendoza is hitting a 62-year-old man. The older man stands still like a bowling pin waiting for a strike. Mendoza whips his sword by his left shoulder and lands it atop the man's head with a smack. "Good!" the man barks to Mendoza. "Again!" Welcome to men's fencing, Hopkins style. For 36 years, flinty Coach Richard Oles has chiseled champions from virgin stone. Mendoza, a second-year fencer, repeats the maneuver, but Coach Oles is waiting. He parries, swiping Mendoza's weapon to the side. "Sloppy. Too slow!" He pounces. Weapons cut the air like planes in an air show. Before long, Mendoza, a psychology major from Piscataway, N.J., is backed up against the wall. "Well, now you're out of the room, Brother Mendoza," Oles says matter-of-factly. Oles has led the team to 23 Mid-Atlantic Conference Fencing Association championships in the last 26 years while being named MACFA "coach of the year" eight times. The Blue Jays are 17-0 this year despite the loss of two starters from last semester. "Sure, it's frustrating, getting yelled at, but you know it's for your own good," Mendoza says, regaining his breath. "If you can outsmart the coach, you can handle yourself with anyone." "The program speaks for itself," Oles says. True, considering almost the entire team had never fenced before coming to Hopkins. "Of the 15 guys who write me from high schools," Oles says, "maybe one will end up joining the team and staying. The rest show up at our first meeting." "I think we've all seen too many Errol Flynn movies ... and thought 'hey, fencing would be cool,'" says freshman David Harris, a math/chemistry major from Lancaster, Pa. "Plus it's great exercise." Upon joining the team, every fencer learns the sport from the ground up, with basic footwork leading to advanced swordplay. Each must run a six-minute mile, pass a written "rules test" and know proper weapon repair before his first bout. "As a freshman you do this for six months," sophomore Darryl Miao says, advancing and retreating while holding an imaginary foil. "After that, you may get to hold a weapon." That is fencing at the junior varsity level, the only Hopkins sport with such a program. JV fencers wear coats and ties to meets, time each bout and practice. The following year, if they come out for varsity, they begin a rigorous schedule. From September, practice is two hours a day, nine hours each day of intersession, with home and away meets on weekends. As a result, Oles says he has never had to cut a player from the squad, no matter what his level. The program can shape a hard worker into a good fencer but a "lazy kid doesn't stand a chance and will walk. They psychologically weed themselves out." "The coach has a formula," says senior Tim Meyer, a physics/math double major from Chicago. "It's earned Hopkins fencing respect." Campus recognition, however, has been limited. Fencers confess that only 10 to 20 fans attend an average home meet. "Even the football and lacrosse coaches who practice just outside say they don't know where the fencing room is," Oles says. (It's directly under the auxiliary gym.) He chalks this up to fencing's scant presence in college athletics. Oles estimates that only 45 American colleges and universities have varsity fencing teams. The sport itself, a derivative of the ancient art of sword fighting, has been at Hopkins since 1897, one year after its inclusion in the first modern Olympic games. Opposing teams field three fencers in each of the three weapons classes (foil, ‚p‚e and sabre) and battle each other in 27 total bouts. The winner of each bout is the first to score five "touches" on his opponent. "For thousands of years, men have wanted to put three feet of cold steel in their hand and fight," Oles says. "It is a combat sport ... that has to be instilled in a fencer's head if it's not there." Not surprisingly, no one accuses Coach Oles of playing with a soft touch. "He doesn't care how you're feeling," Mendoza says. "He'll just say, 'get back in there and work.' " "Sure the coach is a bit of a hard-ass," Meyer says. "But we all respect him a lot." Respect through old-fashioned blood and sweat casts Richard Oles in the tradition of college football's great field generals like Notre Dame's Knute Rockne and University of Alabama's "Bear" Bryant. These men could shout down a bullhorn and wouldn't hesitate to chew out any player, be he all-star or bench-jockey. Why? It instilled the notion that everyone was equal. The team is what mattered. Consequently, these are some of the most respected minds in college sports, most of all by their players. "We're very superstitious of that Sports Illustrated cover athletic kind of thing," says team captain Carl Liggio, a senior from New York City. "You know, one player gets profiled and the team loses ... we're very team oriented." "We're all really close since we spend so much time together," Miao says. "It's almost like a fraternity except without the pledging ... hard work on JV is our pledging." And yet, when asked how they fit in studying around athletics, they respond in a way emblematic of the game itself-- intense but calm and precise. "I only lose two hours each day and six on the weekends in study time," says senior Alan Benson, a biophysics major from Arlington, Va. "We manage." This weekend, the Blue Jays face the College of William and Mary, their conference title rival for the last four years. "Every year, it's them going after us or us going after them," Liggio says. But today is Monday and that means practice. As the team completes its warm-up, Coach Oles begins his. "How are those welts on your shoulder healing, Brother Mendoza?" "Just fine, Coach." "Good. You'll be getting more today." "I look forward to it." And they laugh together, as a team.
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