Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 2001
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Thrust and parry... feint and lunge!
They may enter as novices, but the students who survive Coach Richard Oles's sardonic brand of tutelage emerge as champions--in every sense of the word.
O N    C A M P U S E S

The Right Touch
Photos by Dale Keiger
Photos by Bill Denison

In one corner of a long, hot room in the Newton White Athletic Center, a young man in gym shorts, T-shirt, and yarmulke is in the en garde position, trying to poke a suspended golf ball with the business end of a sword, a foil to be precise. His name is Jacob Becker, class of 2004, and he's not warming up for a party game. He's learning to be a fencer.

Around him, other young men sweat through their shirts as they scud across the floor in an odd, crouching series of quick steps, leading arm extended as if directing traffic. Forward four steps, back three, forward six, and suddenly lunge! with the back leg fully extended, the leading arm stabbing the air. To one side, pairs of more experienced fencers have donned full whites-- knickers, padded jackets, gloves, the familiar mesh masks--and taken up their weapons, sparring with each other or repeating specific moves time and again.

Richard Oles
These drills are punctuated by a loud, insistent, sometimes weary-sounding voice that belongs to Richard Oles:

"Feet together, Brother Riso!"

"Fishkoff is dying out there."

"When he stops, you go! No extraneous stuff! Aim! Aim first! Good!"

Oles surveys the room. "You can tell the beginners because they're stiff," he says. "And they look scared.To the right! Right! Right! Brother Bouloubasis, how do you say 'right' in Greek?"

To which Brother Bouloubasis replies, "I don't know. I only know how to cuss in Greek."

Fifty years from now, Oles's voice will still be seeping from the walls, so long has it echoed in this room. He has been head coach of the Hopkins men's fencing team since 1959, patiently building the program year by year with few resources but much resourcefulness. He has no scholarships to give, maintains no recruiting budget, and often fields teams composed mostly of students who had never touched a sword before they walked into the Hopkins fencing room. But for the last 25 years his teams have won 85 percent of their matches. Hopkins fencers compete as part of the Middle Atlantic Collegiate Fencing Association, and have brought home its three-weapon title a record 21 times, as well as more team titles than any other school in the association.

Says Oles, "The only thing that keeps us from the Top 10 nationally is that the haves--Penn State, Stanford, St. John's-- can go out and bring in the national kid champ. We can't. We get the kids who contact us, and who can get into Hopkins, since our kids don't major in Intermediate Breathing."

He returns his attention to practice. "Relax your shoulder! Relax! Think sandy beaches!"

Under the scrutiny of Coach Oles, Hopkins fencers drill... and drill and drill and drill.

History's first graphic evidence of swordplay for sport is a relief in the ancient Egyptian temple of Medinat Habu, near Luxor, from the time of Ramses II. It portrays swordsmen wearing masks and wielding blades with covered tips. Guilds of fencing masters existed in 15th-century Europe, to instruct gentlemen in the deadly serious business of defending themselves with a blade. Italians set the standard in the 16th century, developing the rapier and a system that emphasized speed and dexterity. A century later, French technique, using the shorter court sword, became dominant. To minimize injuries in practice, fencing masters developed rules that survive in contemporary competition. Fencing became a formal organized sport in the 19th century, and an Olympic sport in 1896, the first year of the modern games.

Richard Oles sometimes sounds like he's been around for all of this. He's 67 years old, not quite as ancient as Ramses II, but he likes to come across as a curmudgeon thoroughly disgusted with modern life. Give him an opening, and he'll declaim on absent-minded professors "from the other end of campus" ...on the manner in which the NCAA has implemented gender equity programs and how that has hurt men's fencing ...on the pampered modern American athlete, the pampered modern American male, and the pampered modern American college student. His own fencers do not escape his sardonic wit.

"College-aged kids now, they're spoiled rotten," begins a typical Oles speech. "They now have so many opportunities, the idea of choosing one activity to concentrate on is beyond the pale." Ask him what makes a good fencer, and he replies, "First, you have to look at it as combat. It's a war out there. It's just you and your opponent, no mommy, no daddy, no brothers, no sisters. You've got to think, 'You SOB, I'm gonna kill you.' The American male has been feminized, but you don't have to scratch very deep to find that combative nature." He falls silent for a moment, watching some of his charges going through their various drills out on the practice floor, then muses, "We get guys in here who scored 1400 on their college boards but can't find their fly in the bathroom."

The fencers on his team take his gibes with patient good nature, occasionally finding opportunities for verbal ripostes. He clearly enjoys their company, no matter how much he grouses. One day, two of them arrive with new and not necessarily well-advised beards. "Is this a Samson thing?" Oles asks. "Because the chicks don't care."

Says one fencer of his new facial hair, "It announces the completion of puberty."

"You need a biology course," Oles replies.

Later, a visitor to practice watches a gawky kid at the far end of the room. Oles has been laughing at how flaky this kid is, and when asked for the young man's name, the coach gives a surname.

"What's his first name?"

"I haven't a clue," Oles says, then grins. "He probably couldn't tell you."

"Even a strong and lusty man without the proper type of exercise cannot deliver blows with the power and speed of one who is properly exercised."
-Giacomo diGrasse, 1570

Fencing is a fundamentally simple sport: two contestants square off, each armed with a sword, and fight according to simple rules. In a tournament, preliminary bouts are over when one fencer scores five touches, what would be wounds in actual combat. Elimination bouts require 15. The swords come in three types: sabre, épée, and foil (win all three and your team is three-weapon champion). All are just short of three feet long; the sabre and foil each weigh less than a pound, while the épée is heavier, around 27 ounces. Heritage has determined how each weapon is employed. The sabre is derived from the cavalry sabre, popularized by the Hungarians, so the fencer may both stab and slash with it, and scores by striking the opponent's head or upper body, those parts that were vulnerable for mounted combatants. The épée derives from the dueling sword, the épée de combat, and the goal in a duel, at least a duel fought in accordance with formal rules, was simply to draw the opponent's blood, not necessarily inflict a mortal wound. Thus in épée the fencer scores by touching the opponent anywhere, including the feet. Foil began as the fleuret, a practice weapon, used for instruction by fencing masters; only a touch to the opponent's torso gains points.

A newcomer to the team (top right) practices various forms of attack on a member of the varsity.

Each weapon attracts a different personality. Sabre, with its slashing pedigree, appeals to what Oles calls the "macho, aggressive, football-wrestler me-kill-em personality." pée is "a counter-puncher's weapon," requiring patience and cunning, since a touch anywhere means a point. Foil, he says, is somewhere in between. When a student first approaches him about joining the team, Oles administers a questionnaire designed to help the coach figure out which weapon will be most suitable. What are your likes and dislikes? Your favorite sports? Do you see yourself as aggressive or passive?

A newcomer learns the sport from the feet up. Writing in His True Art of Defense, Giacomo diGrasse in 1570 said, "Firm footwork is the fount from which springs all offense and defense." Before rookies are allowed to even pick up a sword, they drill day after day in how to rapidly move forward and back while maintaining the balance that lets them attack or defend in a split second. Fencing is the only combat sport in which there is no lateral movement. In boxing, wrestling, karate, even sumo, combatants can circle each other, move to the left or right. In fencing, there's only forward and back, to and fro, attack or defend, the thrusts and parries and ripostes occurring at stunning speed. It may look like all it requires are reflexes and dexterity, but it demands strength and conditioning as well. The legs especially must be strong. And endurance is tested at tournaments in which an athlete might compete in 10 or 15 bouts in a single day.

Ryan Schwerzmann, a junior psychology major and the team captain, wrestled in high school. He says, "You wouldn't think it, but you need more endurance for fencing than in a wrestling match. This is the hardest sport I've ever participated in."

Schwerzmann had never fenced before college. Hopkins has a tradition of creating its own fencers. The varsity assumes responsibility for instructing and drilling newcomers, under the critical eye of Oles. Matt Bouloubasis, the one who can cuss in Greek, is a freshman physics major. By virtue of having fenced in high school, he moved right to the varsity. He says, "We're a closer team than anywhere else. We can make a good fencer here in one or two years."

"Half of them aren't athletes when they come to us," Oles says. "The ones who are athletes are used to the ball sports." Much of what they learned in those sports is no help for fencing. Says the coach, "We need to teach them how to walk."

"Firm footwork is the fount from which springs all offense and defense."
-Giacomo diGrasse, 1570

Oles first entered Hopkins in 1951 as a student. Lacking direction, he left to serve in the Army, then returned to Baltimore and studied piano full-time for three years at the Peabody Conservatory. He finally got around to completing a Hopkins psychology degree in 1968. At various times he has been a construction superintendent, a radioisotope technician at a Baltimore hospital, a piano teacher, and a taxi driver. Since 1970, he has made his living solely from fencing: coaching various teams, working with fencing clubs, conducting camps and workshops.

When Oles began coaching 42 years ago, Hopkins required students to take physical education, and they could get out of it only by participating in a varsity sport. Fencing had been a men's sport at the school since 1891, but that didn't make it fashionable. "Fencing was what you did if you couldn't do anything else," Oles says. "It was lower than golf."

But Oles was a good fencer. He has been Maryland state champion several times and fenced on the U.S. masters team that won the world championship in London in 1970. He proved to be a fine and dedicated coach as well. "In the early 1970s," he says, "I got the guys together and said, 'You've got a choice: Stay where you are, in the bottom third of the country, or schedule more meets, practice year-round, and accomplish something.' They immediately said, 'Okay.'"

The team gradually took over the room it once shared with Hopkins aerobics classes and the pitchers from the baseball team. As a tradition, each year's team provides some improvement to the facility, which is good enough now to host a youth club, an adult club, and many tournaments each year. (Hopkins hosted the NCAA national intercollegiate championship in 1973.) The program's history is on the walls: team pictures (including one from 1951, in which Oles has more hair), photos of individual champions, trophies and medals, posters from various tournaments. All around the room, a series of pennants represents opponents, with Hopkins's record against them over the years painted underneath and updated when necessary. There are a lot of winning records on the walls: 24-2 against the University of Virginia, 10-0 versus Yale, 22-7 against William & Mary. Each year, the best Division III teams qualify for the NCAA national championships, competing in the same tourney against the big schools. Most years, Hopkins is there.

Four years after Hopkins began admitting women students, Oles founded a women's team in 1974, which became the university's first varsity women's sport. ("We beat tennis by three months," Oles recalls.) The program nearly fell apart after some organizational problems, but this year has regrouped under a new coach, Jennifer Rolling '97, a recruiter in Hopkins Career Planning & Development. The squad has only nine fencers, the minimum required for fielding a team, with four freshmen and no seniors, but it will compete with a full schedule this season. Says Rolling of Oles, "Once he sees you are dedicated to fencing, you are part of his family."

It's not all work: "The ones who stay after two weeks are usually the ones who stay for four years," says one veteran.

Back in the fencing room, Oles dons padding and a mask and helps train a beginner in attacking moves. The coach's legs are still muscular, as are his right forearm and shoulder. Fencers tend to develop disproportionate musculature; take a close look and you have no problem discerning whether one of them is left- or right-handed. And Oles is lightning quick. Schwerzmann, the captain, says the coach can still defeat most of the team's épée fencers.

At practice, Oles likes to ride Schwerzmann about his hair.

"We call him 'Puff,'" Oles says. "Show us why."

"Do I have to?" Schwerzmann replies. Oles gives him a look, and Schwerzmann surrenders, jutting his lower lip and directing a puff of air to blow his hair out of his eyes. Schwerzmann later says that the coach comes on strong with newcomers as a test. Those who can't take it likely won't make good fencers. He observes, "The guys who stay after the first two weeks usually are the guys who stay for four years."

On a Saturday in December, Hopkins hosts the New Millennium Charm City Open, a tournament for all comers. It's not an intercollegiate meet, so Hopkins doesn't compete as a team. But several of its varsity fencers take part, because fencing is mostly what they do in their spare time. The team drills for two hours every weeknight, and competes most weekends. The athletes have to travel a lot; after one recent meet in Boston, some straggled back to campus at seven on a Monday morning. Bouloubasis devotes four hours a day to the sport: "It draws you in. There's always something new. And there's always that next level to strive for."

Because this is an open, mixed tourney, there are men, women, boys, and girls, the experienced and the new, all competing together. In sabre, a 6-foot man faces a 4-foot girl, and he wins but not before the girl scores a pair of touches. Off to one side, a proud daddy, himself a former fencer, coaches his daughter. She looks to be about 9 years old and her name is Megan. Sitting on a bench between bouts, Dad explains something about a parry, and Megan tries it out--with her lollipop.

At midday, sabre competition has taken over the fencing room, while foil is contested upstairs on the athletic center's alternate basketball court. The bouts are markedly different. Foil epitomizes what fencers sometimes call "physical chess": the opponents cautiously size each other up, moving back and forth on the floor, their swords clicking as the fencers watch for a vulnerability, an opening for attack. A sabre match, in contrast, is savage and quick, a series of swift attacks that take mere seconds. Bouts are over in a few minutes, but many of the contestants' faces glisten with sweat when they remove their masks.

In modern fencing, 15th-century weaponry meets 21st-century circuitry. Touches are recorded electronically. The fencers wear sensor garments that cover the target areas, and their swords are wired. The heads of sabre and épée competitors count as targets, so before they begin their bouts, they literally connect their heads to the rest of the sensors. Fencers awaiting their bouts walk around sometimes trailing electric body cords, as if waiting to be plugged into rechargers.

On the sabre floor, Ryan Schwerzmann wins a bout, 5-2. When he's not affectionately wrestling with one of the little boys from his Tri-Weapon Boys' Club, Oles watches the match, shouting, "Go, Schwerzy!" Yong Kwon, another Hopkins varsity sabre fencer and the webmaster of the team's Internet site, scores a touch and punctuates victory with an explosive shout. He's having a good intercollegiate season, so far. By Thanksgiving, his record stands at 14-3. The team is doing well, too, opening its conference season with three straight wins.

Later in the day in a corner of the room, Oles is treating an interviewer to one of his sermons about how modern-day kids won't dedicate themselves to just one thing anymore. The exception, he says, are his fencers: "The kids I have are the rare ones."

Back in 1570, Giacomo diGrasse wrote, "Even a strong and lusty man without the proper type of exercise cannot deliver blows with the power and speed of one who is properly exercised." So the following Monday, the Hopkins fencers are back in the gym, drilling: direct attack, indirect attack, circular parry, indirect riposte, feint followed by cut or thrust. During two hours they will warm up, stretch, drill, drill again, drill some more, give and take instruction, and run sprints. Oles watches, delivering his usual verbal direct and indirect attacks, his advice and his dictates and his grouchy gibes.

"At the end of the lunge, Becker, your forward foot must be perpendicular. Look that one up. Advance! Lunge! Foot perpendicular, Brother Becker!"

Oles observes for a moment, then says, with weariness that doesn't quite sound sincere, "Now and then I look around and wonder why I'm doing this." Then he provides his own answer. "But it's still fun."

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.