Foiled again: What is SEM Fencing?

Who, What, Where, When, Why and How explained by Dabin Han ’17.


Despite practicing squash in the SEM gym at the same time as the fencing team, this reporter, Isabelle Schlehr ’17, realized that she knows very little about fencing. This interview with Dabin Han ’17, captain of the fencing team,  shines a light into what is fencing.

What is fencing?

“Fencing is a sport that requires not only physical skills such as agility and strength, but it also requires critical thinking, analytical skills, and mental resilience.”

Veronica (Kexin) Zhang ’19 (L) practicing with Melanie Tunkey ’18. Photograph by Isabelle Schlehr ’17

What do you need for fencing?

“In order to get into fencing, you need at least two weapons, knickers, a lame (depending on your weapon), some electrical cords, a plastron, a jacket, a chest protector, a mask, some people to fence, and a good attitude. Starting is expensive, but once you’ve got all your gear, there’s seldom any reason to buy new gear.”

How and where do you compete?

“For sanctioned tournaments, you need a USFA membership, but for unsanctioned tournaments, all you need is your gear. There are fencing tournaments all over the US. SEM has competed in Rochester, Ohio, and around Buffalo. We host at least one tournament at SEM per year, and we often find nearby tournaments to attend. We’ll be going to Syracuse in the upcoming month.”

How are matches scored?

“The scoring depends on the weapon. Also depending on the weapon, there are different types of lames you have to wear. This is because with the different weapons, there are different target areas. For foil, target area is just the torso. For saber, it’s arms and torso, and for epee, the entire body is target area. All of these rules originate from cavalry and infantry fighting in the medieval times. In addition to target area, there are different rules for each weapon.”

Miao Yu ’17 (L) shaking hand with her teammate Melanie Tunkey ’18. Photograph by Isabelle Schlehr ’17

How does a person decide which weapon to specialize in? Or do they do all of them?

“For the first couple of weeks, Wes makes everyone fence foil.  Depending on your movement and style, Wes suggests in which weapon to specialize, although, the fencers themselves have the final say. It’s usually pretty easy to figure out who will be fencing what within those weeks. Some fencers fence more than one weapon, such as Wes and Maddie Love who both fence epee and foil, and some people initially start as one weapon and switch to another, like me, I started as saber and switched to foil because saber was too aggressive and I wasn’t compatible with that sort of fencing.”

Why did you start fencing?

“I came into SEM knowing I wanted to try fencing. Before SEM, I had never played a sport, except soccer but everyone does soccer when they’re young so that doesn’t count. Fencing offered me a chance to play a sport where I wouldn’t have to sacrifice my independence, while still allowing me to be in a team atmosphere.”

Will you continue to fence in college?

“I will definitely fence in college. I will either join the team or a club, and if whatever school I attend doesn’t carry a fencing program, I’ll find a club off-campus to fence.”

Dabin Han ’17, interviewee

Who is your coach?

“The fencing coach is Wesley Roberts. He has been fencing for 16 years. He took 2nd place at the US Military Fencing Championship in foil. Wes, his preferred name while coaching, has been coaching at SEM for 5-6 years. He fences in foil and epee and he holds a B in epee and a C in foil. Fencers earn ratings that demonstrate their skill level. It starts from U (unrated) and goes from E-A, A being the highest rating you can get. You have to renew your rating every four years or else you’re stripped of that title.”

What is SEM’s fencing team like?

“SEM is the only school in Western New York that has a fencing team, so often times, Wes will bring in outside fencers to come practice with us. This gives everyone an opportunity to fence someone we’re not used to, as well as learn new skills from them. The fencing team has grown a lot in the past year, with several new members who are all very enthusiastic and focused.”

“This is the biggest team I’ve seen since I’ve been on the team and I’m excited to see it continue to grow and improve.””

— Dabin Han '17

Who does SEM compete against?

“We fence students at RIT and U of R and a couple people from different clubs in Rochester.”

After my interview with Dabin, Coach Wesley Roberts said “Over the past five years, fencing has gone from more a club sport to a high level competition sport. Three to four years ago, the idea of having a SEM fencer go to fence in college was unthinkable. We now have fencers who have competed in the Junior Olympics, fenced/fencing on a Division I teams and competing internationally and on the national circuit. SEM fencing is really taking up. We have one of the best fencing programs in high school level in the area.”

After talking to Coach Wesley, this reporter followed up with Dabin on the girl who went to the Junior Olympics and are fencing on Division I teams. Olivia Colon ’16 and Erin Melber ’16 both went to the Junior Olympics. Erin Melber ’16 is currently fencing at the Ohio State University on its Division I team.

Erin Melber ’16 with her Ohio State Fencing team (1st from the left in the front row)