USA Fencing, Please Add More Team Events!

Though individual fencing is strong and getting stronger all of the United States thanks to the supportive clubs and the increasingly competitive web of tournaments in America, there is one place that we are sorely lacking – the team events. 

In our current system, from local to regional to national events, individual fencing takes the top priority. Team events are not a priority. Even when we have team events in the competition, they are still not well attended. Clubs don’t encourage participation because they aren’t emphasized from the top, and fencers don’t participate because they are not emphasized from the club level. 

It is absolutely time for this to change. While the team fencing events are so important on the international level, it has been too slow a trickle for them to become important down here. 

Yes, it is different. Yes, it is slightly complicated and challenging for new fencers to enter into. However it’s not really that complicated, and we can’t wait around forever. We need to see some shift in the way that this is done so that our fencers can get the right tools to succeed at the top. 

Olympic qualification matters

The Olympics are where it all starts. Whatever happens beneath those rings sets the tone for what happens in the rest of the sport. For us in the United States, that should mean taking our cues from what’s happening all the way up there. It makes us better fencers, and as importantly it facilitates the success that American fencing rightly deserves to have. 

Team events are the major way to qualify for the Olympics, especially starting from Tokyo Games when it was the first time that team fencing for all three weapons was included in the Olympics. Times are constantly changing, and this is one instance where we need to mold ourselves to keep up with those times.

We can now expect that team fencing is going to be in every Olympic Games going forward, and so that is something all fencers need to be thinking about. Internationally, team events are so important and prestigious, so they should be the same here in the US.

Enriching our fencers

It’s not only about Olympic qualification, though. Team fencing is a powerful addition that improves strategy, tactic and critical thinking. It’s challenging in a much different way than individual fencing. 

Team fencing in a more substantive way for our fencers across the board would help them to grow. The dynamic between teammates is exciting and it builds meaningful relationships. Even though these competitors are going up against each other in the individual competition, they are also forced to come together. It’s a fundamentally different skillset than going solo. 

One thing that fencing does lack, if we have to say it lacks something, is that collegial component. Individual competition is wonderful, but it is missing the social and nuanced competition that we could have with more of a team emphasis. 

In every other country, the team event is the first priority while in the United States it is a sort of an orphant product of large tournaments. 

The United States could perform much better

Our American fencing teams could and should do far more in the team competitions on the international level than they currently do. We have consistently done well in the individual competitive events, making it to the top of the podium in some cases, but the team events are a constant battle. 

At the Olympic level, the United States seems capped at bronze in the team events. In 2020, we achieved bronze in the men’s team foil. In 2016, it was bronze in the men’s team foil and bronze in the women’s team sabre. In 2012 it was bronze in the women’s team epee. There is a definite pattern here. 

While those are all tremendous achievements and we should be very proud of them, they are also frustratingly close to the top. We deserve to be all the way at the top!

There is progress on the world stage at the Senior and Junior levels, including this year at Junior World Championship. While there are some Gold medals for our teams at these World Championships, including amazing Junior Women’s Foil Team this year, mostly the US gets Silver or Bronze medals. That’s impressive and amazing, but we are so close that we can get there!

Italy, France and Russia are at the top as always and they dominate the team events across weapons and gender. South Korea also runs high up on the team events. America is beginning to reach gold in multiple world events with our individual gold medal finishes, but those team gold medals mostly continue to be elusive. 

Why is this? There are many factors to consider here, but one that is definitely part of the mix is that we do not emphasize team fencing at the national level. Most fencers here skip the team event. 

Possible solutions

The best solution for this is to incorporate more team events into our competitions. In other countries that emphasize team events, their fencers get team fencing built into their DNA. It becomes second nature, with all of the benefits that go along with it. 

We need to do more of that here. 

There are two straightforward tacks to take that would incorporate team events into our fencing at the national level and would not disrupt our current structure. 

1 – Add a Junior or Cadet team event to every NAC where there is a respective individual event. 

I’m not suggesting that we all of a sudden have team fencing in every single competition all the time. That would be a huge shift, and honestly, it would be overkill. There are other, easier ways to incorporate increased team fencing. We should look at how to add a few events to start off with, always with an eye for what the future might look like with more. 

Here’s an example of what that might look like:

  • For the October NAC with Div I, Cadet events would add a Cadet Team event. 
  • In November, where it’s Cadets and Juniors, there should be a Junior Team event. 
  • At the December NAC, there would be a Div I Team. 
  • At the January NAC, a Junior Team event. 
  • At the March NAC, there would be a Y14 team event. There was a Y14 team event at the March NAC for some time, and it’s time to bring it back.

2 – Have teams fence for every place

In every world tournament, teams must fence for every position in the team event. We should do the same domestically. Adding this extra level of competition would be a boost to all fencers, and doing it at the largest competition in the country would put the appropriate amount of emphasis on the team events and create a lot of competitive matches for all teams. 

This is obviously a challenge given the question of referees and space in the venue, and because of that it would definitely add some expense. This problem could be solved by defraying the cost by charging teams more. This way, the cost is split by three or four, depending on the number of people on a team. 

In the grand picture of going to the national event, this additional expense is insignificant compared to the money already spent. The experience that every fencer gets with that expense is tenfold and absolutely worth it. By taking the lead on this, NAC’s, JO’s and Fencing Summer Nationals would encourage more team competition all the way down the line. This is really how we move the needle and increase participation in what are now somewhat lackluster levels of competition. 

It’s time to make a shift

It might take a couple of years for this all to catch on and for fencers to really start to participate in these events fully, but they would be a huge boost to our fencer’s ability to compete internationally. 

Still, I put it out there for you that this is not only about international competition. Our fencers benefit from team events regardless of the competitive edge that it might give them. Learning to think about their fencing within the context of other fencers and their performance is important. The wider, overarching strategic and tactical skills that fencers learn from the team events lift them up and improve their skills. That’s to say nothing of the camaraderie and emotional fortitude that bonding with teammates provides. 

More team events also gives our fencers more opportunities to fence in competition. Rather than having them compete in different levels, we are giving them the chance to level up and do more in the appropriate arena. Every bout that they have with a USA Fencing referee is an important experience that helps them grow as fencers. Increasing the availability of team fencing, as well as putting appropriate emphasis on it from the top, is a good and strategic way to support our fencers. 

We all want what is best for fencing. This sport is our passion, and it’s what we love doing. I call on USA Fencing to look at how we can pivot to expand the experience of our fencers at the national level by expanding team events.