Not all insight in fencing comes from the big names in the sport. Sometimes it’s the people that you haven’t heard of who can offer the most potent and relatable understanding of the sport. Rick Mayer has been fencing for decades, from his teenage years all the way to nearly his late sixties today, and we expect to see him still going.
With over fifty years in the sport, he’s fenced all over the world and in almost every age division. Through his service in the United States military, Rick brings rigor and discipline to his training and to his refereeing. He’s a longtime referee at the USA Fencing Tournaments, both national, regional, and local levels, as well as being a mainstay of the fencing community for many years in New Jersey. He competes today as a veteran fencer, and he offers some grounded perspective on where fencing has been and as such where it is going. What can we do to be better, and why are we pursuing those goals?
In this interview, you’ll learn that a love of fencing is driven by the simple joy in the sport. Competition is a driving force, but it is far more than winning medals. The motivation comes from the continuous challenge of oneself and others to be better every single day. It’s easy to be inspired by Olympic Champions, but most of us will never be there. However, the everyday heroes, like our veteran fencers who commit to the sport just out of pure love and joy of it, these people are often unsung heroes of the sport and they often provide a great insight into the sport and their passion for it. Hopefully, you’ll find that same inspiration from this interview!
Rick Mayer Interview
IG: How have you been?
RM: I’m vaccinated with the first vaccine, so now I can be around the kids with less fear. I have to wait until April for the next time I’m going to be reffing. And of course, we’re all waiting to see what’s going to happen – if we’re going to have Summer Nationals – when I can qualify for the World Vet’s team.
IG: Hopefully they will. Thank you for reading our blog.
RM: Thank you. You bring in all of our fencing personalities, which is interesting.
IG: It’s driven a lot of times by parents who ask me questions and give me suggestions. The reason I wanted to do these interviews is to highlight the sport, and actually, the sport is highlighted by those high profile celebrities in the sport, but it is driven by people like you and me and numerous fencers around the United States and around the world that have this passion. They have this joy. I think a lot of times people look at the stories of regular people around them. The clubs, the sport exists because regular people, not necessarily those with Olympic aspirations, have a passion and they come and nurture some dreams.
IG: You are a double veteran – a captain in the U.S. Army and a veteran fencer. A fencer who, despite not getting any material achievements from being a fencer, gets joy from it.
RM: When I first started, my first coach was Lou Bankuti who was the Columbia University coach. When I went to my first AFLA tournament one of my competitors was a storied coach from a local private school. Dr. Sam D’Amabola, who I guess was in his forties at that time, who would be fencing with me as a teen. Already at that time I saw a continuous path forward. I could be doing this for the rest of my life. Then as an adult, one of my competitors was the Shaolin-trained New York City’s Toshie Totakura, in his sixties at the time, was fencing me very well. He would barely move with his feet, but you couldn’t see how fast his hand was moving. Throughout my fencing career, I’ve had those role models to show the path that this is possible. This is truly a sport for life.
IG: That’s when you decided that it would be your sport for life?
RM: Not quite. In seventh grade, my father forbade me from playing American football. At that time I was the smallest boy in my class. My classmates, twin brothers, whose father Walter Gaylor had been the Naval Academy coach, brought me to their club. Their older brother Michael was NYU’s NCAA epee champion on the same team as later-Olympic sabreur Steve Kaplan. The twins fenced up to the national level and Peter went to the World Cup. Then I went to a new high school and we had football, basketball, and fencing. Again, I was the smallest boy in my class. The choice was obvious, and it turned out, my history teacher was my fencing coach. I continued in college and was varsity my freshman year. I took somewhat of a break during my active duty in the US Military, coaching a little bit and then in Germany, I joined the local club, Fechtclub Kurpflaz e.V. Ludwigshafen. At one point, I was commuting between D.C. and London and left half my equipment in London. I trained with the Polytechnic University Team and the National Team at Sale Boston.
IG: You are almost seventy now?
RM: This is my year. I will be the youngest in the seventy bracket. I know the guys behind me could probably beat me, so now being the youngest in Vet 70 I have the best chance to make the World Team. I was the first alternate sometime in 2007 or 2008t when the Worlds were also in Florida and of course everyone wanted to go to, so I didn’t.
IG: What drives you to train and to compete?
RM: It’s fun. I love it. I think if it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t be doing it. Well, it’s fun, frankly, because I win, and winning is fun. It’s fun because I get to be with my friends. Also, as adults, we need something to stay in shape. I tried other things – dance aerobics – I hated it. Can’t do it. I’m very happy that I have a sport that can keep me fit. It works. Not only for the body but for the mind as well. Obviously, at my age, I need things to keep my brain active as well.
IG: One of the very few sports where the physical strength doesn’t have the same weight as in any other sport.
RM: The kids say ‘Oh, you’re fast!”, and I just say “No, I just know what you’re doing.”
IG: You fencing foil, right?
RM: I fence all three, although I compete in foil. I started in foil, and then my senior year of high school was the first year of scholastic epee, so I switched to that. Then my sophomore year of college we needed sabreurs, so I switched to saber. Then, my senior year of college I switched back to foil. About 10 years ago at the Garden State Games, they needed a 15th classified epee to make the event to be A1 rated, and as I still had my epee classification, I fenced epee. I won my pool, but by then, the foil event had started, so I was back to foil.
IG: Foil is your weapon of choice.
RM: Yes. Fencing is changing a lot now. When I started, it was more common to fence all three. Now the three weapons are moving apart and they all have their personalities.
RM: The Fencer’s Club, in conjunction with the U.S. Olympic Committee has a program for military veterans with PTSD, to be therapeutic. I joined that two summers ago and was training epee again.
Advice from a longtime referee
IG: What do you like about reffing?
RM: That’s a difficult question. Because I’m needed, I think. As a referee, I see many, many kids, and I can help them with their fencing and also with choosing their college major and their college. I don’t know many refs who say “Oh yes, I would wake up to ref.” I think we see it more as our mission to support our sport. It is very difficult. We’ve got kids yelling at us, coaches yelling at us, parents yelling at us, and nowadays everyone has a camera who can catch you doing something wrong at any minute.
RM: I did the first regional since we were allowed to in October and another one in November. Hopefully the April, May and June NACs and with God’s help, Summer Nationals where I’ll also compete.
IG: What do you like about reffing?
RM: My colleagues are very fine people. For sure. I get to hang out with Olympian Ivan Lee, Olympian Ann Marsh. The people who were my mentors coming up, and what they did that inspired me. Sharon Everson, who’s retired now. Olympian Dennis O’Connor. So many people guided my development as a referee.
IG: When you go to Summer Nationals, you do all ten days?
RM: I do. You get your pin when you do more than five days. There are some referees who have the entire lapel filled with pins.
IG: A badge of honor. I think that people do not understand the job, especially parents. How long have you been refereeing at Nationals?
RM: Since 2003, so 14 years now.
IG: What suggestions would you give to parents, to coaches, and to fencers based on your experience?
RM: I tell the kids, coaches and parents all the time – know the rules. It drives me crazy when the kid is fencing and he doesn’t know the rules. How can you play a sport without knowing your own rules? Coaches who don’t stay current with the rules because the rules are evolving. The rules are always changing. I’ll be yelled at by a coach who’s still thinking the old way or how they interpreted the Right of Way. Parents who don’t know how to behave at a tournament. Those are the things I hate.
If you don’t know anything else, learn the penalty chart. If you don’t want to learn all the rules in your weapon, at least learn the penalty chart. Why is that important? Number one, so you don’t get penalized. Also because when you get penalized, you understand so that you don’t argue something that is a rule because if you argue with the ref and then you’re wrong, that doesn’t go well for you.
Coaches need to stay current. Now we have videos all the time. You can watch the World Cup videos and see what’s being done at the World Cup level. We start from the World Cup and it trickles down.
As far as the parents, that’s difficult. I’m not sure how to train parents, how to act in the tournament.
IG: It’s a long, long.
RM: It happens at least once every tournament, a parent will be arguing with me and I’ll just say, “Sit down. Go over there and sit down.” They’ll sometimes come up and say “Oh, look here, I have the video. You are wrong.” Generally, I will not look at videos. I’ve done it twice, though not during the bout, but after the end of the pool. I’ll go over to a parent and say, well, show me what you have. Both times they were wrong.
IG: What caused you to go and see these videos?
RM: I think because I had the time. I didn’t have another event that I had to go to immediately. I think because the fencer was a good fencer. If both the fencer and the parent are obnoxious, then there is no reason for me to engage.
IG: There is no way a Y10 fencer will know the rules. Y12 will now know many of them. Y14 will know maybe half of them. Not until Cadet will they know and have a good grasp of them, especially when some of the rules are evolving. I remember the latest one, the passivity rule.
IG: For half a year, people didn’t understand how to interpret them. So kids don’t know. How do you adjust and how should the kids adjust to the situation?
RM: Like I said, I think at least know the penalty chart. That’s the easiest.
Keeping sharp during COVID
IG: I have been genuinely shocked by how much is gone with the pandemic in one year of not reffing. I see this in my own son, who has been a ref for some time and is at an eight rating, refereed a competition that we had outside as we cannot train inside in our state. We put the scoring machine outside and everything. He knows the rules and I did not expect to see how much edge he has lost in that one year of not constantly reffing. What is your suggestion for combatting the loss that we will see coming back into competition?
RM: I will tell you, I watch fencing videos to make touch determinations. There are two sites I use every day. Every day I look at a foil video on one site and the other site gives me both saber and epee. One is called Fencing Database and the other is called Counter Riposte. You get a click with one action, and you make a determination of how you would call it, and then you vote and it’s revealed what the call really would be from a consensus among the top-rated referees. That’s how I stay fresh.
IG: There are also a couple of accounts on Instagram where they published snippets. If you follow, they also publish snippets of the bout, the last ten seconds. But it’s not the same as a bout because you know this is the ten seconds where you need to focus. Versus the whole bout where things happen. Not everyone is like you is diligent to keep current on your skills.
RM: I know I have to. Your son is an eight, so he’s not going to be doing Regionals or Nationals. I have to be ready any moment as I could be called out to do Regionals or Nationals.
IG: What is your philosophy with kids?
RM: Especially with the Y10s, patience and understanding are important. However, here in the United States we are training the kids for the higher levels. If there are not consequences when they are at the lower levels, they’re going to get up to Cadet and Junior and do something wrong and they’re not going to be expecting to be penalized. Can you imagine a bout at 14- all and you do something stupid and so you lose it because you haven’t been penalized before?
Another one of my hats as a referee is training, because it’s not always happening in the club. So it falls on me to tell them.
IG: So you are a tough judge?
RM: Not as tough as I used to be. I’ve softened over the years. When I first started reffing, in part because of my upbringing, education and career experience, I was tough. My parents are German born. I’m very much straight and principled. Engineering education, which is very cut and dry, and those years of military training. I’m a different ref than I was 14 years ago.
IG: What do you think we should do as a fencing community going forward? The pandemic has hit fencing hard. How do you think we’ll rebound as a sport?
RM: I’m sorry to say that it’s going to be very difficult. If anything, the COVID environment is not going to suddenly go away. This is going to be with us. We as a country have to rebuild now. I think the fringe clubs, the ones that were started by someone who maybe they fenced in high school, maybe they fenced in college and that was it. I don’t think they’re going to survive. We might wind up more like a European system, where you have the few stronger clubs. In New Jersey, there was a big push for scholastic fencing. We grew to 50, maybe more, high schools that have programs. We actually have a reduced scholastic season this year. We graduate three 300 fencers every year, and maybe 10 are going to fence in college. I don’t think that we’ll have the same funding when we come out of COVID, so we’ll have to start from scratch and start rebuilding funding sources as well. As I said, I am hopeful for larger clubs and for the sport. But it won’t be easy.
IG: It is a very challenging world. I hope there is light at the end of the tunnel.
RM: There have been some hopeful signs. The Super Bowl happened. Why is that important? Because now we can see you can have a large sporting event without becoming a super spreader. Now they can say “Look at the Super Bowl. We were able to do that. So now maybe we can do the Olympics.”
IG: I hope that they’ll be able to do it. Thank you very much. This has been a very interesting discussion.
RM: Thank you Igor, and I look forward to the time when we can get together in person.
This interview has been edited down for readability, as Rick offered so much wonderful insight. It is published with this approval on this blog.
AFM is incredibly grateful to Rick Mayer for his time. His deep level of insight into the sport from so many different angles is of great help to the fencing community, and we are fortunate to be able to share it. Thank you Rick!