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Epee? Foil? Saber? What’s The Difference, And Why U.S. Fencing Stars Picked Theirs

By Paul D. Bowker | Feb. 04, 2016, 9:54 a.m. (ET)

Daryl Homer poses for a portrait at the NBC/United States Olympic Committee promotonal shoot on Nov. 20, 2015 in Los Angeles.

Short track speedskating has been described as NASCAR on ice. Skaters move quickly around tight curves, often banging into each other. Some skaters wind up crashing into a wall.

If you think that’s fast, try saber fencing.

“Saber fencing is like Formula 1 racing,” said U.S. Olympic men’s saber fencer Daryl Homer. “It’s aggressive, fast and requires split-second decision making.”

Each point is over in a matter of seconds as the two combatants lunge at each other with swords honed in on making a hit tracked by an electronic system. Footwork on the competition strip is quick. And lunges are often accompanied by loud shouts in both men’s and women’s competitions.

“You’ve got to go after your opponent,” said three-time U.S. Olympian Greg Massialas, now the U.S. national men’s foil team coach, who dabbled in saber fencing early in his career before deciding on foil. “You’ve got to go get it and the action is over very quick.”

Said Homer, who in 2015 became the first U.S. man to win a saber world championship: “There are so many things you have to evaluate about your opponent while you’re in movement: distance, the location of his arm, what he’s trying to set up, while also keeping control of your own tactics and form. Fencing matches are always one of the highlights of my day.”

Perhaps the perfect sport for a 220 miles per hour Formula 1 racer.

Saber is one of three disciplines in fencing, and each has its own rules and styles. The others are foil and epee, and all three are disciplines used in the Olympic Games.

In foil, a point can be scored only with the tip of the blade in the torso area (shoulders to groin in front, and to the waist in the back). Hits to the arms, legs, neck and head are illegal. In epee, a point can be scored anywhere, but points can be more difficult to score because epee swords weigh approximately 27 ounces, whereas foil swords are less than a pound and easier to maneuver. Saber fencers can score with the side of the weapon as well as the tip. Legal target areas are anywhere above the waist except for hands but including the head. The mask covering a fencer’s head is electronically wired to record hits.

“Foil is sort of in the middle, where you have to be ready off the line to do something, especially at the higher level,” said Massialas, who once medaled at the national championships in all three disciplines. “But you also are able to create things in the middle of the action and set things up well while the action is going.

“It really is the balancing act between two weapons (epee and saber).”

While saber is the quickest, most aggressive style of fencing, epee is the most defensive, requiring high skills to stop an opponent attempting to score a point. Counter moves are crucial.

“Aggressive defense,” Massialas said. “Sometimes you’re provoking your opponent to attack you.”

Foil combines the offense of saber and defense of epee. It’s fencing’s great balancing act and often the discipline kids learn first when they take up fencing.

“I’ve never fenced epee, but I fenced foil for two months,” Homer said. “Classically, foil is the weapon most new fencers begin with.”

“Back in the old days, foil is the weapon that everybody would start with, even now, in a lot of places,” Massialas said. “Then subsequently they would go to epee or saber if they want to.”

For Homer, it was saber. And at an early age. He just wanted to be cool.

“I started fencing saber when I was 11 years old,” he said. “I’d fenced foil for two months and wasn‘t enjoying it. At the club I started at, all of the ‘cool‘ kids fenced saber, so I asked if I could try one day. Naturally the head of the club made a remark about me being young and asked if I could handle a lot of losses. I replied, ‘Yes,’ and with that I became a saber fencer.”

Some of Team USA’s best fencers previously competed with different weapons than those they use today.

Alex Massialas, Greg’s son and earlier this season the No. 1-ranked fencer in the world, won national medals in youth saber competitions before settling on foil. Teammate Gerek Meinhardt, who also has achieved a No. 1 world ranking in men’s foil, won his first national title in epee before going to foil.

“A good foil fencer can fence epee or saber reasonably well if they’re a little bit trained, where it’s not true the other way around,” Greg Massialas said. “A good saber fencer, it’d be hard to fence epee or foil successfully.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990. He is Olympics editor and Assistant Sports Editor at the Cape Cod Times in Massachusetts. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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