en garde

The Mt. Lebanon High School fencing team’s Alex Rangel and Paul Emery face off at the Foil Fencing Competitions.

The buzzers, the flashing lights, the weapons thrust to the left, to the right—welcome to fencing, the sport of noblemen and musketeers that has made a victorious return to Mt. Lebanon High School.

Last spring, the high school fencing team took first place in the Pittsburgh High School Epee Cup. Also, team captain Alexander Rangel placed first in the Tiger E-Under Men’s and Women’s competition at Tiger Fencing Club, one of about 15 Pittsburgh-area private, high school and university clubs in the Western Pennsylvania Division of the United States Fencing Association.

Not bad for a team that has been practicing together less than three years.

“Our devotion to the sport and work ethic has helped us not only in our individual bouts but as a team, too,” Rangel says.

Early records show that fencing first came to Mt. Lebanon High School in 1936 with 36 team members. Mt. Lebanon fencers  took first and second place in a 1937 foil competition at the Pittsburgh Fencing Club. Interest in the sport waned over the decades, however, as other sports emerged and became more popular.

A typical Friday afternoon practice in the high school’s Center Court

The current Mt. Lebanon team came together in 2011 when then-senior Josh Boyer and a handful of students, some experienced, some not, approached coach Tim Yultchiev of Tiger Fencing Club. Boyer is now fencing at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he is majoring in electrical engineering.

“Josh and his family were instrumental in bringing the club back,” says Mt. Lebanon High School Athletic Director John Grogan.  “The school district provides a great opportunity for our students to begin student-initiated clubs, if there is sufficient interest and they find a faculty sponsor.”

Then-parent coordinator Rich Boyer adds, “I remember at the first practice opening the equipment storage area for the first time in years and finding quite a bit of equipment to our surprise.”

Today, faculty sponsors Laureen Hurt and Irene Duda and parent coordinator Michelle Emery provide logistical support to the team. Emery, whose son Paul joined the team in 2012, is a fencer herself. Before moving to Mt. Lebanon, mother and son fenced in their hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio. Paul began fencing in kindergarten and won his first tournament at the age 8.

Mt. Lebanon wins 2014 Epee Cup with team members Alez Rengel, Nicole Phillips, Marie Erikson, and Paul Emery pictured with Coach Tim Yultchiev.
Mt. Lebanon wins 2014 Epee Cup with team members Alex Rangel, Nicole Phillips, Marie Erikson, and Paul Emery pictured with Coach Tim Yultchiev.

Fencing has a long and rich history, with Egyptian pictographs displaying swordplay. Competitive fencing is only one of five sports  to continuously appear in the Summer Olympics since 1896. (The others are track and field events, gymnastics, cycling and swimming.) In Pittsburgh, there is an increasingly robust community of tournament fencers. The Holy Grail, hosted each spring by the Carnegie Mellon Fencing Club, has become the largest and most popular competition in the state.

The épée, foil, and saber—practice weapons for dueling—are the three major weapons of competitive fencing today. The body targets and rules of the competitions are different for each type of weapon based on their original purposes. For example, an epee was used to settle duels of honor—someone calling someone else a liar, perhaps—and the first drop of blood was the goal. In épée competitions today, hits to any part of the body are valid.

The foil was the preferred weapon for “dueling to the death,” so hits to the torso, where the vital organs are, were prized. Today, fencers wear silver vests for foil competitions, emphasizing the part of the body to be hit. Sabers originally were used for dueling on horseback, when it was contrary to the rules of chivalry to injure an opponent’s horse. In competition today, hits to the torso above the waist and the arms and head (excluding hands) are the target.

Fencing referee Storm Walden take issue with an old saying in the fencing community that sabre is theater, foil is art, and épée is truth. “In my time fencing, since starting as a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University, I’ve found that the reality is that each of the three—and the sport as a whole—are characterized by a mix of all three.”

Fencing competitions are held on strips, or pistes, to replicate combat in confined quarters such as a castle hallways. Competitors must wear protective vests, plastrons (jackets), masks, and gloves.  Electrical scoring apparatus with wires embedded in uniforms and referees on hand for judgments calls decide the winner.

The fencing team celebrates after a successful season.
The fencing team celebrates after a successful season.

Mt. Lebanon is fortunate to have Yultchiev as its coach and Tiger Fencing Club as a local resource. Yultchiev and co-owner, Elmira Ioultchieva, established Tiger Fencing Club in 2003. Ioultchieva, who is the coach’s mother, holds a master’s degree in the coaching of fencing from Moscow’s Academy of Physical Education. Before launching Tiger, Ioultchieva taught private épée and foil classes, with a number of her students winning national competitions.

Fencing is a lifetime sport, and unlike many other sports, anyone can become a fencer regardless of size, weight, or age. The sport develops fast reflex actions and trains the athlete to make quick decisions. Physical attributes are not as important as determination and concentration. It is said that fencing challenges the nerves and brain as much as the muscles.

For information on how to join the Mt. Lebanon High School Fencing team, contact Tim Yultchiev elioult@hotmail.com

Photography by Michelle Emery