A common question that I get from fencing parents is this one: “Which fencing weapon is the most prestigious?”
It makes sense in a way. It’s a kind of logical question when you think about it, because these people don’t know a whole lot about fencing, and so they’re trying to make sense of something that they don’t have a reference for. They know that there are three different weapons. They know that their child is going to have to choose one. They want to guide their kids in the right direction, but they don’t know at all how to do it. So they ask questions that make sense to them. It’s a good thing.
Which one is it? Is it epee, foil, or sabre? Which fencing weapon is the most prestigious? It’s a big question that there must be an answer to! People who are new to fencing rightly want to have some understanding.
Turn it on its head
When people ask me this question, I always respond back with a question for them.
Which is more prestigious, swimming the hundred meter freestyle or swimming the hundred meter breaststroke? How about this one – which is more prestigious in track and field, the long jump or the high jump? Or from a non sport area – what is more prestigious, piano or violin?
Of course the examples go on and on. The reality is that there is no such thing as the most prestigious. Within a sport, these are all variations on a theme. Every version of the sport is valuable, because they are all unique in their own way. What differentiates foil, sabre, and epee is not one being better than the other. What differentiates them are little nuances. There is no big thing that makes one better or worse.
The same thing goes with any of the Olympic sports that have these kinds of variations. They have come out of a long history of development, decades that took them from being all one thing to these different sports. Honestly, by now no one really cares so much about the differences. These separations give us a richness within each of these sports, a variation that allows us to explore and be creative. Within fencing, the different weapons are beautiful and wonderful in their own way. Despite the fun going back and forth between us at times, we all are part of the same sport. This goes for pretty much all of the Olympic sports that do this – we are all together in it.
Prestige comes from what you love
Where the prestige comes from is in what your child does and in what your child loves. That’s what marks a given weapon as special and amazing.
That love of the weapon is what will propel your child forward. No one takes notice of what your weapon is if you are a regional champion, or a national champion, or a world champion, or an Olympic champion. All anyone is going to see is the “champion” part. No one is going to notice if it is in this one or that one.
That you are fencing in your favorite weapon, that’s what matters. Or that you love fencing and you grow to love the weapon that you have chosen. Though there are lots of differences that we could talk about between the three weapons, they are all still fencing. No matter what you have, you’re still holding a sword and stepping up to a strip to face the opponent.
I wish that I could bottle the feeling of love and passion that our fencers feel, then open it up and let new fencing parents have a taste of it. It’s so much bigger than a certain weapon. When a fencer falls in love with this sport, well it’s magic. They don’t think about the prestige, but just the love of the sport. Which is, oddly enough, the path to victory!
People who become champions in any sport get to the top because of the love of the sport. They don’t start out wanting prestige – they start out with loving the process. If you are chasing prestige, well that won’t get you through long hard days of practice. It has to go the other way. Which is more fun and less pressure anyway! No matter the weapon you’re fencing.
There are still fencing divisions
This all doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who specialize in each weapon. When you choose a fencing weapon, you are specializing. With that specialization, there comes a deeper understanding of the weapon and all of the detail that goes along with it. In fencing, there are tons of little nuances that make the weapons very different.
Because of this need for specializing, in any weapon, there are clubs that focus only on one weapon. These are great clubs, fantastic places to learn fencing. These places are often pushing their fencers to the highest levels, stretching the boundaries of what can be achieved in fencing. For instance, there are many sabre only clubs in the United States that have lifted this weapon to the highest levels, making U.S. sabre fencers competitive in the Olympics and at the world level. One of the most prominent ones is Oregon Fencing Alliance in Portland. The Alliance Fencing Club in Houston, Texas, is a great example of an epee only fencing club that has taken a specialty weapon to a wonderful level. There are foil only clubs too, such as Massialas Foundation (or M-Team) in San Francisco, and clubs that have two of the three weapons.
If you happen to live in an area that has a great club, but that club only offers a certain weapon, well then that’s the club and the weapon to try! What is going to matter most is that you have coaches who are competent, compassionate and passionate. Not that they are teaching this weapon or that weapon. Many of our greatest fencers choose their weapon because of who their teachers were.
There are even whole countries that do only one weapon! For example, Switzerland is an epee only country. They focus their entire country only on epee, with only epee clubs. It’s a small country of course, so there is a sensibleness to having just one weapon and not dividing fencers. They chose this not because epee is more prestigious or less prestigious, but rather because they wanted to put all of their resources into growing great fencers and choosing one weapon was a way they saw to do that.
The history of fencing prestige
The history of fencing factors into this a little bit as well. The three weapon system has been in place for all of modern fencing, though the early Olympic Games had some variations like stick fencing (that’s a story for another time!).
Many years ago, women fencers had only one weapon – foil. When you asked someone what is the most prestigious fencing weapon, if they were a woman they would say foil because it is the only one that they could fence. Until 1999, women couldn’t fence sabre. That kind of separation made it feel a little more like there was some kind of hierarchy, even though it was a patently false feeling. Now it’s all equal – foil, sabre, and epee. They are all equal in women’s fencing, which puts them on a level playing field all around.
In the past at the Olympics, one weapon was shorted in competition thanks to a rotating system of team competition. That system left out one weapon in each Olympic Games for the team competition, rotating through the three weapons. That made things feel a little uneven as well! With the 2020 Olympic Games, all three disciplines will have both team and individual and with both genders. This makes everything a totally even playing field for everyone. Everybody can have the same chance, no matter what weapon they fence. It’s a needed and exciting change.
There is always some playfulness going back and forth between the different sections, but at the end we all see ourselves as fencers. We are all part of the same sport. One of the most wonderful things about fencing is the camaraderie – between team members, between opponents, and between weapons.
My final piece of wisdom is this. Do whatever your love, or whatever your parents sign you up for, or whatever the best fencing club in your area is offering. Don’t think that you should like this weapon or that weapon because it’s more prestigious. It doesn’t matter! What matters is that you are passionate about the heart of your fencing.