Feb. 3, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 9

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    University fencers thrust ahead to defend rankings

    By Jennifer Leovy
    News Office

    Most people who cross swords with Natasha Spencer regret it. An M.D. and Ph.D. candidate at the University, Spencer is ranked 39th nationally as a foilist in fencing.

    Spencer earned her ranking last December, when she and members of the University Fencing Club competed at the Palm Springs North American Cup. [natasha spencer] by lloyd degraneHer 20th-place finish has qualified her to attend the Olympic trials this summer in Austin, Texas. The Olympics fencing competition will take place in September in Sydney, Australia.

    “I didn’t expect this, especially since one-and-a-half years ago I came in nearly dead last in a competition,” said Spencer. “I’m just pleased to be able to go to the trials.”

    Spencer began fencing for physical and mental exercise while in college at Yale University, and eventually, she joined the varsity team. Her technique began to significantly improve two years ago, when she began training with coach Bakhyt Abdikulov. A former World Cup fencing winner and a coach at the local organization Fencing 2000, Abdikulov provides on-campus coaching for Chicago’s club.

    Abdikulov trains students in the weapons that comprise fencing’s three events––foil, épée and saber. The foil and épée are point-thrusting weapons. Weighing slightly more than a pound, the foil is approximately 3 1/2 feet long. The épée is a heavier version of the foil with a thicker blade. The saber is a shorter and lighter point-thrusting weapon that also is used to cut.

    Fencers, who duel on a strip of metallic mesh that measures 6 feet, 7 inches wide and 46 feet long, compete to hit their opponents in a strike zone. The first fencer to achieve 15 strikes wins the competition.

    Chicago’s fencers are performing well under Abdikulov’s tutelage. Several of Spencer’s teammates have achieved personal bests this year. Gale Wichmann, a Ph.D. candidate at the University, placed 36th in the Open Women’s Épée at the North American Circuit fencing competition last month, which qualified her to compete in the 2000 U.S. National Championships this July.

    Wichmann cannot compete for an Olympic spot because the U.S. team did not qualify for the épée event, but she is not complaining. Content to work on her national ranking, Wichmann said, “Fencing is incredibly intellectual. Even if you are physically fit, it can take years to understand the strategy of this sport. Now that I’m older, I feel like I’m finally getting it.”

    Last December, three undergraduates qualified for the Under-20 Junior Olympics Championships, which will take place this month in Sacramento, Calif.

    First-year Christopher Chiu will compete in the men’s épée event, and second-years Christina Imholt and Blaise Misztal will compete in the women’s and men’s foil events.

    Chiu said he is relieved to qualify for the Junior Olympics, especially given that he is a member of a club instead of a varsity team. He believes fencing is a sport particularly akin to Chicago students because of its intellectual and analytical demands. “As our coach says, ‘It’s just like chess, just a thousand times faster,’” said Chiu.

    Imholt said she is thrilled to compete at the Junior Olympic level, but she noted that fencing is enjoyable at any level. “I think it is a great sport to get involved in at anytime of your life. I know fencers who are 10 years old and those who are 75 years old,” said Imholt. “Unlike some sports, you don’t have to start very young; you can pick it up at any age and still be successful.”

    Fencing’s “noble and romantic ancestry,” said Misztal, attracted him to the sport. “Everyone pretends to be a pirate or swashbuckler when they are a kid,” said Misztal. “These dreams are further propagated by books like those of Dumas, The Three Musketeers, for example, and movies like Zorro.

    Misztal said his performance at the Junior Olympics qualifiers was his best ever. “I was thrilled that the nine hours of weekly practice had paid off, not only for myself but for my teammates.”[spencer] by lloyd degrane

    Spencer will continue that hard work this year in competitions to improve her ranking. “Fencing takes a lot of discipline, but you can see yourself grow and develop through putting in hard work,” said Spencer. “You can see the results right away.”

    The Fencing Club plans to raise funds to compete in amateur and intercollegiate events throughout the year. For more information about the team, manager Carrington Ward encourages visits to its Web site at http://student-www.uchicago.edu/orgs/fencing-club/.

    A historical note:
    Although it has been more than 50 years since the University was a member of the Big Ten conference, its fencing team left quite a legacy.

    Chicago was a Big Ten member in fencing from 1926 to 1946. During that era, University fencers were eight-time conference champions with a six-year sweep beginning in 1935-36.

    After the varsity team was discontinued in the 1990s, fencing became a club sport.