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Fencing team ‘foils’ its foes

Published: December 7, 2012
Section: Featured, Features


Brandeis Fencing this season is considered one of the top teams in Division III and many consider the team to be comparable to one of the Division I level. Tim Morehouse, U.S. Olympic medalist and a national champion, was a member of the Brandeis fencing team during his time here in the 1990s, and graduated from Brandeis in the year 2000 with a degree in history.

Senior Harry Kaufer of the men’s fencing team told of how the team, although technically Division III, goes “head-to-head with sports powerhouses.” Coach Bill Shipman remarked that the team could “compete well against all but the very best five or six teams in the United States.” This, according to Shipman—who has been coaching the team since 1981—is a huge accomplishment: “We have moved from an unknown team that barely competed outside of New England to one of the top D3 teams in the US … We have fencers wanting to come to our team.”

Indeed, Kaufer described that everyone on the team has had experience fencing before coming to Brandeis, and most were recruited for the purpose. There are a small handful of walk-ons on the team, but they too had extensive training and experience before being accepted to the Brandeis team. Such is the level of the team’s competitiveness that such wide-ranging pre-Brandeis work is required.

The men’s and women’s teams more often than not are lumped together. “The men’s and women’s teams are basically just one team,” explained Kaufer, “we just compete separately.” They train together, often compete in the same location and both Kaufer and Shipman talked about both as though they were one team.

Fencing is a winter sport, so the team is currently in the early part of its season. But the team has been training since September and not only have both group training and practices, but one-on-one training with the coaches. These individual sessions are “very, very valuable,” since fencing is “at its core, an individual sport,” explained Kaufer. Most students practice at least four or five times a week; some practice every day.

There are three different types of fencing and each person competes in only one category: either épée, foil or sabre. “People very rarely go back and forth between the different types of fencing,” explained Kaufer.

But one of the distinguishing features of collegiate fencing, differentiating it from fencing at other levels, is the team spirit at the school environment. “The team aspect is what sets college fencing apart,” said Shipman. “The college format is different, with only a team score. So the social dynamic and atmosphere of the meets is different than most fencing.”

Kaufer elaborates on this, saying, “Collegiate fencing is 100 percent a team competition … [this] makes college fencing extremely rewarding … when you’re on the strip facing an opponent, it’s really you versus him. But there are 20 guys rooting for you. When someone wins it’s really not that the person has won, but the team.”

Both Kaufer and the coach remarked on the team’s closeness and support. “The Brandeis team is very close. It always has been … and in our personal lives we’re a very close-knit group, too. It makes it fun,” explained Kaufer. Shipman added that one of his favorite things about the Brandeis team is the “quality of the people” on it. “Generally they are dedicated, honest, cooperative fencers who make my job a pleasant one most of the time.”

One major goal for the team this year is to win the Northeast Conference title. This will be “very difficult,” Shipman said, “as [the team has] lost to MIT and the men also to Sacred Heart.” Other goals include beating traditional rivals: Boston College, Brown, New York University, MIT, Haverford, Johns Hopkins and Yale, among others. The team also would like to have some fencers qualify for the NCAA championships. Shipman, however, stressed that the team’s “more important general rule” is “to see every fencer improve and perform well and enjoy the process.” Kaufer also expressed hopes for the team this year, stating that the team has “the opportunity to make some noise at regionals.” He also thinks that Brandeis has “as good a chance as any [school] to bring home the New England Championship.”

Both Shipman and Kaufer wanted to make sure it was stressed that the team is a very young one this season. According to Kaufer, this means that “the team has the opportunity to be very good … the future is bright as well.” Coach Shipman says he hopes “[the young members] will be the heart of some very strong teams in the coming few years.”

Kaufer also recognized how hard people work to keep the Brandeis fencing team alive, well and strong: “The fencing program is historically very strong and continues to be strong … a lot of hard work by a lot of people go into keeping Brandeis at the head level.”

Are there, though, any negatives to fencing? While Shipman stated a simple no, and senior Kaufer could not think of anything bad about the Brandeis team, he was able to think of something bad about fencing in general: “The gear gets extremely smelly.”

The fencing team’s room is on the lower level of the Gosman Gym complex, across from the dance studio and squash courts, before the cardio equipment. “Everyone peeks in and watches,” Kaufer warned, though he actually wanted to encourage it: “Everyone should feel free to wave.”