2012 Olympian Race Imboden explains his sport of fencing
Race Imboden fences using a foil, the most popular of the three fencing weapons
Fencing competitions are similar to tennis matches, featuring direct elimination
Imboden says spectators often do not realize that fencing is a very mental sport
SI.com: In fencing, there's three different weapons - can you describe the difference to me?
Race Imboden: I fence foil - you can only hit with the tip of the blade, and the blade is a little more flexible so you can bend it and use that to your advantage. Fencers wear a metal vest, and that is the only target. And you hook up to a system -- when the tip hits the metal, it grounds out and turns a light on. In epee, the blade is a little stiffer but everything is considered a target: toe, hand, head, everything. There is no right of way; if both fencers hit, then they both score a point. The final weapon is sabre, which is actually the quickest. Fencers can hit the waist up to score points, and fencers wear a long sleeved vest from your wrist and waist up. Hitting the head also scores points. Fencers can hit with the side of the blade, so the bout starts very quickly and the fencer wants to dominate the opponent the whole time.
SI.com: Are epee bouts much quicker, then?
Imboden: No, they're actually much slower because it comes down to closer scores and matches. It's probably the most like fighting because you don't want to get hit at all.
SI.com: Did you ever fence a different weapon?
Imboden: I've tried them, but I've always stuck with foil. Beginning fencers usually start with foil, and it's kind of the classic weapon of fencing. It's always been the one I've enjoyed the most.
SI.com: Do you have an advantage by being a left-handed fencer?
Imboden: I would say yes, being left-handed helps a little bit. Chances are if you're fencing, not many guys are left handed. A lot of the top guys are left handed, but even when I was younger, I got nervous seeing a left-handed person, even though I am left-handed.
SI.com: How does a fencing competition run?
Imboden: For individual competition, if you're ranked in the top 16, you don't have to compete the first day of the event. The fencers who are not compete in a pool. The pool is split into groups of five who all fence each other, and then you're ranked based on your performance. So everyone fences everyone in the pool, and you want to be ranked as highly as possible in that pool so you get a weaker draw for the next day. Sometimes people mess up and it's crazy, and then it's just direct elimination the next day.
In a team competition, you're ranked depending on how you've done in prior events, and it's just direct elimination from the beginning. You want to go as many rounds as possible winning as consistently. Once you lose, you'll fight off for sports. Since we lost in the round of 16, we fenced and we lost only one bout - instead of becoming ninth, we came 11th. There's three people fencing, and one alternate who can sub in. Those three guys are all going to fence each other once in a bout with the first person to 45.
SI.com: Do you do weights or strength and conditioning along with your training?
Imboden: It depends on the fencer - I do some weights, but I try to stay away from doing too many because being to bulky cuts down on limberness. Not many guys are really huge, but most are really quick and explosive. I do a lot of agility work and endurance. Our competitions are really long - one day is 9 a.m until 9 p.m., so you're there all day and it's really draining. If you're not fencing, you're watching or waiting, you have to warm up and cool down, get ready for the next bout... If you make the final, you have to be the same in the final as you were in the first match of the day.
SI.com: In the fall, you will attend Notre Dame for college - why did you choose to go there?
Imboden: Last year, they were NCAA fencing all around champions. The other top programs are Penn State, Ohio State, Columbia, Harvard potentially. It depends on the recruiting that year. I know that a lot of the team that I'll be on will be good - we'll have three people on this past senior team.
SI.com: Is the sport of fencing growing in the U.S.? Do you have an advantage if you start younger?
Imboden: It's like any sport -- I started when I was 11 or 12, and now kids are starting at like 7 or 8. I'm realizing what could have happened if I had those 5 extra years, and kids younger than me are trying to get up and compete with me. That's how it is for all sports and that just shows that our sport is growing. I know that in NY, there's 4 or 5 clubs in a four block radius around my club. It's really huge in California, there are clubs scattered all around the United States. It's great for fencing to be growing like it is.
SI.com: As a fencer, what are some of the skills and tactics necessary to be a good fencer?
Imboden: I always call fencing the physical chess - it's one of those sports where you can choose which skills to take and use to your advantage. Obviously, like in any sport, being physically fit and ready is important. All fencers' legs are massive cause they're basically in a squat position all day. As much as it is physical, it's all about trickery and outwitting your opponent. It's one-on-one it's like in tennis where someone can say on this day, they had their number. Even though the guy has won everything in the past, if that guy did something to switch or change, that can cause him to win even if may not be as physically fit.
That's why I enjoy it so much -- I've played sports where it's all about fitness or all about strength. But to be out there battling one on one with someone where you both have to alter yourself and be consistently aware of what is going on in the period of 15 touches. It makes it exciting and makes training so much more enjoyable.
SI.com: Do you think that aspect takes away from the sport?
Imboden: I definitely think fencing draws in many people who are very intelligent but don't quite pick up on the idea that this is a sport. Usually the guys that you see who are very big and very fit, they would probably be good at whatever sport they do. I do think it draws away from that aspect, but it's the same as many sports where it weeds itself out. Once you start competing, the guys who are going to shine are the ones who have the best balance between physical and mental.
SI.com: Who are some of the best fencing teams in the world?
Imboden: The last two years [2010 and 2011], China has won the world championship. They're a great team, and they're actually huge - all their guys are like 6'3" and left-handed. They're great fencers, very technical, and extremely no emotion on the strip, very focused. The best teams have to be Italy, China, France, Korea, Russia, and this year, we've beaten Korea, France and Russia, so that motivates me. It's huge for us.
SI.com: From the outside looking in, what are some things that people don't realize about the sport of fencing?
Imboden: When you watch any sport -- for example, baseball -- you watch the pitcher throw the ball and it looks effortless. Then, when you step on the mound, you realize that it's really far away. You see them pitch on TV every day, but then you step on the mound and realize that it's a pretty far pitch to get into a little circle. In fencing, we're talking guys who are coming at you full force and you have to defend yourself and land on an open piece of target the size of an apple. All day we're training to deceive people who are all day training to deceive us. So, for me, when you just watch the sport, it's not something where it's all contact based or really flashy stuff. But once you start to realize the minute things, it's like one person is acting as the entire football team, calling all the plays and all premeditated. It's all so much further ahead than you can process. It's much more mental than people out there swinging swords at each other.
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