Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Essential USA Fencing Tournament Changes for the 2019-2020 Season

Essential USA Fencing Tournament Changes for the 2019-2020 Season

There are some big changes coming to fencing tournaments for United States fencers this season. Most of the changes will affect the USA Fencing Summer Nationals that will happen in Louisville, Kentucky on June 28-July 7, 2020.  

While it might feel like it’s a little bit too soon to be talking about what’s going to happen with fencing next summer, given that this season has just started, it’s better to know ahead of time than to get behind! 

New rule changes

Fencing rules change every single year. This is because there is a belief that we can always make things better, and that’s of course true. 

The USFA Fencing Board met back in February during the Junior Olympics in Denver, and during their meeting they talked about a lot of things, one of which was how the USFA will improve its tournament structure next year. Every year, the USFA adds new updates to its existing rules to make things better for fencers who compete in USFA sponsored tournaments. 

Frankly, with some changes it will take space to make sense of whether they will be good or bad changes. How this might play out is something that I’ll explore below in depth, though the reality is that it just takes time. I find myself arguing internally about how I think these will unfold, which makes me all the more excited to talk about the changes and to see how they change fencing in the next year and beyond. 

Here are the major changes coming to fencing for the 2019-2020 season, as well as my commentary on what I think they mean. 

1. Seeding

I’m not going to go far into this, but it is important to make note that there are seeding changes coming this season. Namely, all initial seeding for every age category will be based on National Rolling Points Standing. If you’re affected by any of these changes, then you’re already a high-level competitor and know what’s going on with them. They’re fairly self-explanatory.

2. Division 1 Epee is moving to a single day. 

Among all of the weapons, epee in the Div1 NACs has got the most changes. There is a powerful reason behind that. The USA epee fencing group  is lagging behind other United States weapons in the international arena, especially in individual competitions. Note that the teams are doing ok, as the Men’s Epee team was the World Champion in 2012 and the Women’s Epee team was the World Champions in 2018. The USFA wants to facilitate competitiveness and growth of the USA fencers, which leads to the national epee coaches and the national office constantly experimenting with the various national tournament formats. 

For the last two seasons, the format has been a two-day competition with the first day excluding the stronger fencers and so that the weaker fencers competed for the right to jump in against the higher tier fencers on the second day. This created a much stronger pool on the second day of competition – the contrast was major. The drawback to this format was that it required lots of additional resources for both fencers and for organizers. 

This year, the idea is to preserve that narrowing down to the strongest fencers, but to do it in a framework that is less demanding on either fencers or organizers. Create that same significantly stronger pool of fencers who are going to fence for the medals, pushing their abilities way up. Unlike the way things happened in previous years, this event will be held in just one day, based on the format described here.

Of course, intense stamina needs to still be developed for those who are going to fence first in the pools and then in the DE to get into the second round. Even with the break of a couple of hours between last bout in the top 64 DE in the first half and the second pool round, fencers will be very tired. It’s critically important that epee fencers train for this as what it is – basically two competitions in a single day. 

Though the format has been pulled down to one day, it’s not at all like a single day competition. This is two days worth of very intense competition pushed into a single day. It involves the hardest possible competitors in the United States, vying against fencers at the Division 1 national level. Those surviving the first round will have somewhat of a disadvantage as they will be tired compared to the top 34 that got BYE’s for the first round of pools/DE’s. 

One thing for sure, with this change in format, physical conditioning will play an even bigger role this season. 

3. Maximum DE field size of 256 fencers. 

This one is the least impactful change among many changes this year. This will marginally affect fencers, as it might affect a few fencers that would otherwise be included in the Direct Elimination round. 

What this really does is to put additional emphasis on the pools. 

4. Changes in Div2/3 eligibility. 

There is a significant change in the eligibility requirements for Division 2 and Division 3. 

If you’ve qualified under Div2/3 at once point in the season, then later in the season but before you’ve registered for Summer Nationals, you earn a higher rating that puts you into a higher division, you are no longer eligible to fence in that division. 

For example, let’s say you were a D rated fencer who got into top 40% in the Division 1A ROC during the Fall 2019. Because of that, you are qualified for Division 2, 3 and 1A at Summer Nationals. Let’s say that in January you are competing in a local competition where you earn your B rating. With that rating, you are now no longer eligible to compete in Div2 and 3. What does this mean for you? It means you have to plan ahead and be decisive. If you do want to fence in Div2/3 (which is based on your current rating), then I would recommend that right after the USFA opens registration, sign up for these divisions immediately while you are still eligible. DO NOT PROCRASTINATE! 

In addition, I just have to share my take on this change. I frankly think that this hardening of the condition for qualification was not really necessary. The motivation behind this was to make Div2/3 be more “fair” towards the fencers that compete at the championship. In reality, I believe that the fairness was already there. I just took the liberty of looking at all of the Div2/3 events in the 2019 Summer Nationals in Columbus to count how many “ineligible” fencers (ie. A,B for Div2 and A,B,C for Div3) were at each event and how they placed in the event, in both top 8 and top 16.

I found that, first of all, not that many people “abused” the system. Even if they were of a higher rating, it did not affect the final results that much. We definitely did not see a skew in the wins towards the higher rated fencers, especially in the Div2. In Div3, being the gap a little bit higher, it did affect a bit more, but still. One of the reasons why “non eligible” fencers did not sweep the podiums in every category is because, as I wrote in one of the previous posts, earning a new rating does not make your automatically a fencer with solid performance on that level. It takes time to solidify your rating

You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s a chart that shows exactly how this all unfolded at the 2019 Fencing Summer Nationals in Columbus. 

Total # A’s, B’sA’s and B’s in Top 8A’s and B’s in Top 16

Total #A’s, B’s, C’s

A’s, B’s, C’s in Top 8

A’s, B’s, C’s in Top 16

5. Y12/14 National Championship – promotion to DE of 80%

We all want to encourage youth fencers to participate in the nationals. It’s a fantastic goal to encourage young people to go and fence at the highest level. For Y10/12/14 fencer, being relatively new fencer and then going to Summer Nationals feels like a huge achievement. It is a huge achievement, don’t misunderstand me. 

This last major change is one that I am torn on, but let’s explain it before we start talking about what it means. 

Eighty percent of fencers in the Y12 and Y14 categories will be promoted from the pools to the direct elimination, leaving twenty percent to be eliminated after the pools. 

Up until now, everyone was fencing in the pools plus at least one round of DE’s. Even those few dozen fencers at the bottom of the final seeding table were fencing in the first round with more or less equal level fencers. For them, it was a real fight with a fair chance to win. So it was a great thing.

Now, with 20% going home right away after the pools, a trip to Summer Nationals might feel like very cruel. They fence only 5 or 6 bouts in the pools and that’s all. As a parent, I know that that would feel like a bad investment of time and money. Not that everything is measured as an investment, but it is difficult to justify this expense compared with how much experience they gain.

What does this mean? It means that we will all need to work extra hard to convince parents that it is worth the experience, and we need to make it worth the expense.

Here’s my advice to the parents:

  • Help your child to qualify both to their and one age category up. That means your ten year old fences in both Y10 and 12, Y12 fencer will fence both 12 and 14 and Y14 will fence both Y14 and Cadet. Why this is important – because if they succeed to qualify for 12 and 14, for example, chances are they are more that they will pass the cut on the Y12 side. 
  • Go to more RYCs for Y12/14 fencers and Regional Cadet/Junior for Y14 fencers to qualify and gain experience
  • Attend the March NAC. This will let you gain the experience at a high level national competition. The NAC does not have a cutoff, meaning that 100% advance to the DE round. Your fencer will get invaluable experience for Summer Nationals right there. 
  • Explain to your child the difference between and NAC and Summer Nationals. Talk the process through with them, explaining why Summer Nationals has such a high level of criteria. Talk about how this is like the “big kids”, because it is. 
  • This is a great opportunity to learn the importance of pool rounds. There is no time to just coast through, you have to give it your all on every single bout when you are competing on this level.  
  • Of course, talk to your coach about whether and how much your child is ready for Fencing Summer Nationals. Your child’s coach is going to have more insight into their fencing than anyone else.
  • Most important! Do not measure the return on investment of Summer Nationals based on the number of bouts your child competes in. Whether or not they advance to the DE, they are still worth the effort and the expense of going to Summer nationals. There is so much more to this, and these things should be emphasized.

I should confide that I am still debating within myself over whether this is a good or even reasonable thing to do. I’m not sure if this is a good thing for the development of our youth fencers, or for their motivation. This is definitely one of those instances where we will have to see how it plays out, both in terms of the outcome and in terms of the changes in training and participation that it creates. 

Make no mistake – there are some major differences in this year versus last year. If you felt like you had all the rules in hand last year, then tuck in because you’re in for a learning curve. The good news is that most of these changes are in fact good news for competitive fencing in the United States! 

We wish you all the luck in the coming fencing season. Here’s to a summer in Kentucky!


What If You’re Not Cut Out to be a Fencing Parent?


How to Qualify for 2020 USA Fencing Summer Nationals [Infographic]


  1. R

    I enthusiastically endorse a L256 tableaux maximum and 80% cut. At Summer Nationals I reffed kids who had no business being there. Their parents’ money would be better spent on lessons and camp to ready them for higher-level tournaments.

    • Igor Chirashnya

      These are 2 different things – having no business to attend SN and being cut. If a child is absolutely not ready to participate, then their coach should explain this to the parents. However, if a young fencer is ready and attends then 20% cut off rule might be harsh.

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