By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Robin Self (C’20) recently won a gold medal at a fencing tournament in Music City in Nashville. The tournament itself consisted of around 40 competitors, and Self fenced at least 20 people during the tournament.
“It’s an all-day thing,” he recalled. “You have to deal with getting dehydrated; it’s more of an endurance thing than anything else. Even if you get to the finals, it doesn’t matter if you’re too tired to do anything. It’s a waiting game.”
First, the contestants competed in the round robin, where every contestant fenced each other in five matches in three minutes. Afterwards, successful contestants were seeded, after which direct elimination follows in three periods of three minutes, with a break in between each period.
Self recounted, “I was having a really good day; it was one of those things where it wasn’t that hard.”
Dr. William Engel, English professor and fencing instructor extraordinaire, coaches Self at Sewanee and trains him for tournaments. The two have been working on in-fighting, a technique that enables Self to retaliate when he gets too close to his opponent, or their weapons are locked and no one calls a halt.
“I’m teaching Robin how to do compound attacks, that build on what we call complex attacks,” explains Engel. “So he’s going in, he’s doing the attack, he misses, he’s ready for the next thing, and that involves footwork, coordinating with new attacks, plus the forward motion.”
Self discovered both his interest and talent in fencing in junior year of his high school. Prior to that, he was a ballet dancer for 13 years and hoped to pursue it professionally. When those plans fell through, a teacher advised him to take up fencing, and Self decided to join a club.
“I found that I was very good at it, and kept going,” he said.
Upon arriving at Sewanee, Self joined up for the Introduction to Fencing class (PE 106) with Engel. Engel, a certified coach and fencing instructor from the U.S. Olympic Training School, has worked tirelessly to ensure that Sewanee is recognized by the United States Fencing Association. His efforts proved successful, and the Fencers’ Society is recognized as a club within the association.
“Obviously Robin came here an experienced fencer,” said Engel. “Unlike some experienced fencers in the past, he has recognized that I have, as a coach, things to teach him about competitive fencing, having been on the circuit myself.”
Self, having completed both the introduction class as well as the advanced class (PHYS 306) in his freshman and sophomore years respectively, periodically helps Engel with the beginners’ class, at the end of which Engel hopes to hold a mock-tournament. Self will assist in judging and directing the beginning fencers.
“He has gotten so much better by virtue of training with the group as we do,” said Engel. “Also, much to his credit, he does all the warm-ups. I think Robin realizes that there’s still much to be learned.”
Engel has made it a point to ensure that learning to fence at Sewanee incurs no extra costs. For this and safety reasons, each class has a limit of 12 students, and the classes fill up quickly.
“It’s the beauty of fencing: no matter what your size, shape, gender, form or whatever, you can develop a form and style of fencing that fits you and is effective,” said Engel. “That’s what I work on, especially with the advanced class, once I’ve known you for a semester, I see how you fence, I know what your weaknesses and strengths are. My goal then is to work with you one on one, to develop your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. So literally in a year, if you take 106, 306, you could be winning tournaments, if you do what I say.”
Self earned a National Rating for his tournament win. He hopes to get to Nationals this season, but has reservations about travel and transport because Nationals are in Virginia this year. However, he will be heading to bigger cities in the Tennessee region for four more tournaments in the coming months.
“Those are going to be a lot larger,” said Self. “I’m looking forward to those, because they’re where you get to see a lot of fun new fencing styles.”