There is more to fencing than just being passionate about it and wanting to do it – you have to have the means to fence. There are many reasons that someone might not be able to fence, but by far the biggest impediment is the simple fact that it is accessible everywhere, that there are no fencing clubs in every town, or even sometimes in a region.
If we want to grow our sport, we need to understand where we are right now so that we can see those opportunities. There are so many opportunities! Defining the parameters is an essential part of the process, kind of like evaluating a new opponent on the strip.
We are not alone at least. Many Olympic sports face similar challenges to what fencing faces in terms of reaching into sparsely populated areas. This is a reality for anyone who wants to train for an elite competition of any kind, even when it is not specifically sport related. Think about the arts or academics – the best tutors and the highest universities are generally centered around urban areas, or at the very least aren’t too far from them. If you want to be the best, then you need to go where the best teachers are, and the best teachers, by definition, have to be rare.
For fencing, it’s not just that most of the population is far from the best coaches, it’s that most of the population is far from ANY coach. There are irregularities in the training that is available, both in the quality of instructors and in the ability to compete, which is such a big driver for growth in fencers. These are problems to solve and overcome, but also realities that won’t change too much with time. We have to figure out where we are at so that we can make the most of what we can be as a sport.
Where sports live
Sports do not live in isolation. They are always a communal effort, even when clubs are privately run. Fencing clubs are built on cooperation and support through our tremendous fencing families and our wonderful community. It takes a village to raise an athlete.
It does not matter that this is an individual sport. All sports involve coaches, training partners, mentors, parents, and regulatory organizations, like USA Fencing in our case. Access is dependent not on having one person in an area who is passionate about the sport, but rather on many people who are collectively passionate and willing to put in the work and resources required. Everyone contributes, but everyone also benefits.
School sports are a consideration here. Schools sponsor track and field, soccer, swimming, etc. That means that state funding chips in to support those coaches and facilities, whereas non-school sports have to make it on their own. Community centers and health clubs like the YMCA are spread all over the country too, even in places with low populations, and these help to fund many sports programs. Fencing can occasionally be found in those spaces, but much less than running or soccer. There are lots of reasons for that, and one way to look at this is as an opportunity. Fencing clubs in many places have started out in rec centers or even as addenda to dance programs or gymnastics schools. The starting place is always an outgrowth of something, and that always starts with someone who wants to get going.
I cannot help but think here about Cathy Zagunis and her predecessor Collen Olney, who were such forces in building the Oregon Fencing Alliance. I think about Peter Westbrook, a fencer who leveraged his success on the strip into teaching others. We could talk about any number of athletes, parents, and coaches who created a place for fencing that increased access. That takes time, it takes resources, it takes exposure, and most of all it takes people. Though fencing has grown tremendously in the last several decades, there is still so much room to grow.
Fencing access by the numbers
The difference between fencing and many sports is that there isn’t a gateway that is accessible at the lowest levels. Most communities, even in rural areas, have a gymnastics program or a swimming program close enough to train in. Baseball or volleyball, track and field or soccer, these things are common.
For example, there are over 4000 gymnastics clubs and 5.2 million participants in the United States according to USA Gymnastics (the governing body of the sport). Compare that to fencing, which has just about 700 clubs and around 37,000 members according to National Fencing Club Rankings (according to its last public update – unfortunately this site is no longer publishing!)
That doesn’t give a really clear idea of the spread of fencing clubs outside of large cities, though you can see that fencing is dramatically less common than at least one other individual Olympic sport.
Here are some statistics from National Fencing Club Rankings that put things into perspective. These are the numbers of the top 10 fencing club states in 2017.
- California – 84
- New York – 64
- Texas – 43
- New Jersey – 40
- Pennsylvania – 37
- Florida – 33
- Illinois – 28
- Virginia – 25
- Massachusetts – 25
- Ohio – 24
Notice that these don’t necessarily mean that there is a fencing club on every street corner in the state. California has the most fencing clubs, but it’s a big state so there’s only one fencing club for every 1940 square miles or one for every 470,000 people. Massachusetts on the other hand has one fencing club for every 422 square miles or one for every 272,000 people. If you’re in Massachusetts, you’ve therefore got pretty fantastic access to fencing compared to California, though of course that is on average and depends on where you live in California. Still, these states all have large urban areas that tend to be where the fencing is. That leaves large spaces without any access.
Now let’s move on to the states with the lowest numbers of fencing clubs.
- Wyoming – 1
- Wisconsin – 1
- Delaware – 1
- South Dakota – 2
- North Dakota – 2
- Hawaii – 2
- Nebraska – 2
- Minnesota – 2
- Maine – 2
- Mississippi – 2
- New Mexico – 2
Again, we can see here that distance is a big deal. Delaware only has one club, but the whole state is only 2500 square miles, though about a million people. Wyoming has 10,000 square miles and only one club. Only one in ten thousand square miles! There are half a million people living in this state, so things are far more spread out compared to Delaware.
When we think about these numbers and envision them on the map, we can really see how rare and spread out our sport is. Fencing is hugely concentrated in certain areas and incredibly sparse in others. Even in states where there are lots of fencing clubs, that doesn’t mean that there is a fencing club nearby.
One of the great things about America that makes it distinctive is that there is so much space, but there are limitations that go along with that. The United States has a population density of 87 people per square mile. Compare that to France with 319 per square mile or Japan with 863 per square mile. Italy has 518, India has 1, 066, and Israel as 1,089 people per square mile. That means a lot of space for people to spread out.
There are trends for Americans to move to bigger cities, so population density in those areas will increase as it decreases in the already less populated areas. In twenty years, half of Americans will live in just eight states – California, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. For fencing access, that bodes well, though it will obviously have huge ramifications for all kinds of things. The lack of resources for fencers in those areas that are not as heavily populated will only become magnified.
The pandemic’s impact
First off, we cannot really know how the pandemic will change the equation in the long term sense. Things keep changing, and we really don’t know what the future will hold for our fencers at the end of all of this. What we do know is what is happening now, and we can say for certain that this has been a serious setback for our sport.
The pandemic has hit fencing in the United States hard, just as it has hit sports hard in many other areas. The current number of fencers registered with USA Fencing is around sixteen thousand. That’s less than fifty percent of what it was before COVID. Think about that for just a moment – more than half of the fencers in the United States ceased their training in the last year. That is a huge issue, and it’s one that it is difficult to wrap our minds around.
Some clubs will close permanently because of the coronavirus and its impact. We have already seen college programs cut in the last year, and there could be more of that on the horizon too. When programs disappear, access is gone, and as we mentioned before it takes a long time to build these programs. There will be no quick solution to bring those lost fencers back into the fold, and many will not return. It is just one of those things we cannot control.
What we can control is the way that we come to this sport. Innovations in technology due to the pandemic mean that clubs are likely to close, but it also means that distance training is more accessible than we could have ever imagined. Fencers can train with their coaches across thousands of miles. We don’t know exactly what training possibilities will exist when this is over, but we can imagine that there will be hybrid options for fencers who live too far to travel to their fencing clubs to train. It could well be an exciting time for fencers when we come through to the other side! We are always full of grounded hope.
Our hope is that we will see an explosion of interest when the pandemic is over, and there is some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. Changing demographics in America are likely to bring new fencers closer to clubs than they have been, and changing technology will allow those who cannot come to the club as often to continue to train. We are still a niche sport, and we love our fencing community, but we always want to share it!
Image: Geico’s Commercial – Neighbors fencing problem