Agile Feet, Agile Minds Are the Point of Fencing at Einstein
Ariel Allen, a third-year medical student, is skilled at swordplay. During first year, with encouragement from Joan Junger, Einstein’s director of student activities, Ari, as his friends call him, volunteered to share his passion for fencing. He began teaching the mysteries of the sabre to an intrepid group of students at the Falk Recreation Center—challenging both bodies and minds.
He once studied with an Olympic coach. “He was very intense, but he taught the sport well,” recalled Ari.
To make the class possible, Ms. Junger arranged for equipment, and Ari devised a series of classes. “We ended up with a good balance of women and men, and of M.D. and Ph.D. students,” he said.
Lessons ranged from developing muscle memory and maintaining the proper stance to the subtleties of theory. “It’s gratifying to see people get more comfortable and move more naturally,” he added.
Picking Up the Sword
The three weapons used in fencing—foil, epée and sabre—require different skills. Sabre was developed for fighting on horseback; the target is above the opponent’s waist. The fencers are fully protected by armor and masks, but it’s still intimidating at first. “Nothing can prepare you for life challenges better than a six-foot-five guy screaming as he lunges at you with a sword. After that, nothing else seems as scary!” said Ari’s fellow fencer Ruth Howe, laughing.
This past year, while Ari worked with intermediates, Ruth instructed the beginners. An M.D./Ph.D. candidate in cell biology, Ruth has studied all three weapons. She enjoyed “seeing the fencers gain confidence and the ability to plan on the fly.”
One relative newcomer to the sport is Joanna Krzyspiak, a sixth-year Ph.D. student in neuroscience. The appeal of fencing for her was not only physical but cerebral. (Her childhood affection for Xena, the Warrior Princess, also made sword-fighting seem like fun.) Now she’s hooked.
The Mental Game
Fencing offers a high-energy release from studying. “You’re constantly moving. You get thighs of steel,” said Ruth. “When you’re in a stressful profession like medicine, it’s a great way to blow off steam.”
Ari agreed. “From a purely physical point of view, it’s an unbelievably good workout. Amazing cardio and strength training, especially for the legs. But it also involves fine-motor skills, working the fingers and forearms. It’s about explosive, quick movements.”
Sword-fighting may sound exhausting, but with the sabre, “the lightest touch is the best,” Ruth noted. “Winning involves cunning, not just brute strength.” The sabres are surprisingly maneuverable—and require a surgeon’s precision.
The brain gets the best workout; strategy is crucial. “It’s a subtle sport,” Ari said. “It takes the same mental discipline and flexibility as working in an emergency department.”
Ruth added, “When fencing, you need to do the unexpected to fake your partner out. It helps you understand how other people’s minds work.”
A Welcoming Venue
The staff at the Falk happily accommodates the program. “We enjoy supporting student-led efforts,” said Jake Kuhl, the center’s assistant manager. The fencing series “is open to anyone—no experience required—and it’s free.”
The group appreciates Mr. Kuhl’s support. He hasn’t yet fenced, but he’s tempted. “I’d like to try—maybe,” he said. “You need really good footwork!”
Joanna also appreciates fencing’s emotional challenges. Not a risk-taker by nature, she finds it exhilarating. “I like being a beginner,” she said. “You learn about how you learn. When you’re in a fast-thinking, high-pressure situation, instinct takes over. And if you practice enough, technique and instinct become one.
“You work out, you train, you find your weaknesses and work on them,” she added. “I think it helps people become the best versions of themselves.”
This coming year, beginning August 13, fencing sessions will be offered weekly at Falk on Tuesday nights, from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. “There will be teaching at some of those sessions and opportunities to practice what you have learned,” said Ari, who has begun his third-year clerkship rotations and will no longer be able to offer instruction.
Anyone interested in taking part can stop by Falk for further information. If you need to borrow equipment, please contact the student activities office at x2101.
Posted on: Thursday, August 01, 2019