Senior Weston Halberstadt stands on the fencing strip, toeing the en garde line that keeps him four meters from his competitor. He looks across at his opponent but can barely see their face, hardly able to make out the smug expression that’s hidden behind a screened mask. Everything is still as the fencers wait for the director to start the bout. As soon as the director says “En garde,” the fencers spring into action.
A naturally defensive fencer, Weston baits his opponent by taking several swift steps forward to make it appear like he’s attacking. He makes a check by stomping his foot, then backs up quickly, trying to make it appear as if he’s attacking. It works. His opponent swings, misses. Seeing his opportunity, Weston lunges forward to get the touch on his opponent and win the first point of the bout. He gives a quick yell to release his energy and stress, and then refocuses on the winning the next point of fencing, the sport that is his passion and his escape.
Although Weston played the usual sports like basketball, soccer and baseball throughout grade school, when he saw a flyer at school that advertised fencing classes, he jumped at the chance to try the new, unique sport. Weston had never been the biggest or strongest kid in his grade, so a sport where size or strength didn’t matter appealed to him instantly. Another part he liked about fencing was the mental aspect of the sport.
“Fencing is like chess at the speed of boxing,” Weston said. “You have to think faster than your opponent if you want to win.”
His parents, Thomas and Cathanie Halberstadt, both encouraged Weston to play the sport in order to stay active, but also because the sport fits his strengths.
“He likes to think and when you fence you don’t do the same thing as a routine,” Cathanie said. “Each time you step onto the strip you have to think about what your opponent is going to do and react quickly to that.”
Despite the perception Weston says many people have of fencing from bloody movie battle scenes, modern fencing is actually a sport that involves quick decisions and subtle movements. Once the director starts the bout, the fencers put their strategy into play. Based on their opponents’ actions, they can react differently in hopes of getting the first touch, which earns them a point. Depending on the type of bout, the athletes fence to eight or 15 points.
Within the sport, there are three categories of fencing that evolved from the Middle Ages to modern fencing: sabre, foil and epee. Weston mainly competes in what he described as the “most intense” one – sabre. Sabre is meant to stimulate a cavalry fight so only touches from the waist up count as a point. In sabre, there is also the concept of “right of way,” which means that the person moving forward, or attacking, will get the point if both fencers hit each other at the same time. Similar to sabre, foil has the concept of right away and the area of target is expanded to the chest, shoulders and back. Epee has no concept of right of way, uses the whole body as a target and uses a heavier weapon.
Weston said that fencing involves a lot of mental aspects and problem solving in order to compete with opponents and get the first touch. Weston’s coach, Kelly Williams, said that Weston’s ability to think fast is part of what makes him a good fencer.
“Weston is by nature a problem solver,” Williams said. “He likes to analyze things and think things through, which is a big part of fencing.”
Weston also said fencers have to adapt their style based on how the fencing director rules the bout. The director watches the fencing and decides who gets the first touch. When in question, the fencer who is attacking gets the point. However, Weston said that directors will often interpret “attacking” differently, which forces the fencers to adjust how they fence.
“There’s a silent communication going on between fencers,” Weston said. “You have to act and then react faster than your opponent.”
Weston also has more motivation for fencing because of its individuality. Throughout elementary school he had done other sports to hang out with friends, but he did fencing for the love of the sport.
“Fencing was something I did for myself,” Weston said. “There was a lot more motivation for it.”
Ever since he took an introductory class to fencing the summer after 6th grade, Weston was hooked on the sport. Now, he practices four days a week for two hours at Kansas City Fencing Center, a local fencing club.
At practice, Weston fences with some of his close friends. The class begins with a warm-up and then works on footwork for about 30 minutes before starting drills or bouts with other fencers. By the end of the class, Weston is tired. Nonetheless, he’s refreshed and ready to start homework after practice.
“I definitely see going to fencing practice as a way to escape the regular stresses I have,” Weston said. “It helps to go there and fence without having to think and worry about other things going on.”
Weston also competes in local and national tournaments about once a month that usually last all weekend. Recently Weston has been working with his coaches to help himself mentally prepare for the bouts because he tends to let his nerves overpower his skill.
“As his coaches, we try to help him relax and do what he can do,” Williams said. “We tell him to take it one touch at a time.”
Although Weston has progressed immensely since he first walked into the sport of fencing as a sixth grader, he says there’s still a lot he can improve. Since he began, Weston thinks his footwork has gotten much better and he moves more fluently up and down the strip, yet he admits in no way is he done learning about the sport.
Weston also hopes to continue to fence in college at schools with strong fencing programs.
“Hopefully fencing will be a lifelong sport for me,” Weston said. “I feel like I can gain a lot out of the sport and learn from it even as I grow older.”