When the Mask is On: on Women in Fencing

Valentina Vezzali, image courtesy of Wikimedia
Valentina Vezzali, image courtesy of Wikimedia

In our society, the women who break down barriers are those who ignore limits.”

-Arnold Schwarzenegger

Some of my earliest childhood memories come from watching my older sister, Paloma, play in a boys’ soccer league. Paloma was an athletic phenom, possessing great speed, excellent ball skills, and zero fear of contact or matching up against members of the opposite sex. Her abilities were so great, in fact, that she was selected to the league’s all-star team on multiple occasions. As a sweeper, Paloma developed an uncanny ability to lay brutal, forceful (and legal) hits on her opposition that were reminiscent of Ray Lewis delivering a blow to a poor, defenseless receiver crossing over the middle of the field. If putting adolescent boys face first in the mud was an art, Paloma was Leonardo DaVinci, and as her younger brother, I was often the canvas.

Though we were coached by my father and a Soccer family through and through, in middle school, I began to develop my affinity for combat sports, and I joined the wrestling team. There, I met my friend Dominique “Domi” Molina, our 103 pounder whose brother had previously achieved legend status via wrestling at our school. Domi could move around the wrestling mat like a wolverine, calculating and calm in her approach, but when she saw her opening to strike, within a blink of an eye, she aggressively and confidently took her opponents out with her signature double leg takedown. She would often have her opponents flat on their backs and staring up at the gymnasium lights seconds later. The body language of her opponents spoke volumes as they picked their bodies off the mat, showing dejection, embarrassment, and more than often, tear filled eyes as they returned to their teams with that purported “shame of losing to a girl.”

Domi Molina, a gal you did not want to cross.
Domi Molina, a gal you did not want to cross.

Domi would go on to coach our school’s wrestling team, where she passed the torch and began to develop protégés, including a young lady named Taira Salahutdin, who was able to advance in the regional round after her male opponent was barred from wrestling her. “Our philosophy at school is we don’t think boys should wrestle girls,” said Greg Thiel, the athletic director of Calvary Christian School. Cavalry Christian School’s athletic mission, as stated on their website is “to develop Christ-like character among our student athletes,” and nothing says “Christ-like character” like forcing your students to forfeit against women. Incidentally, Thiel doesn’t have a job at Calvary anymore.

Paloma and Domi were cases of women “seducing the boys club,” transcending gender barriers in sport, and making a habit out of beating their male opponents to a pulp; but, in 21st century sport, Paloma and Domi were rare exceptions, and far from the rule. In sports, there’s a certain shame we place on athletes for “playing like a girl,” “throwing like a girl,” “being a sissy,” or in the most grievous case, “losing to a girl.” Yet, we’re quick to encourage “manning up,” “sacking up,” “growing some balls,” taking punishment “like a man,” or making an opponent one’s “bitch.” Conventionally, female athletes are expected to be ladylike, but when they choose to compete with intensity, the pea brainers dismiss them as “butch,” “lesbians,” or in a hybrid of sexism and racism, “nappy headed hoes.”

The inherent gender shaming present in sport codifies the idea that “women can’t beat men” and that they do not have a right to be on the same playing field as men.  Whether it was NASCAR legend Richard Petty who shamed Danica Patrick’s entry into the “sport,” claiming she could only win if “everyone else stayed home,” or golfer Vijay Singh who said he wouldn’t play alongside Annika Sorenstam “because she doesn’t belong out there,” or tennis player Bobby Riggs who insulted Billie Jean King in saying “…the woman should stay in the bedroom…they should get to the kitchen,” there’s an age-old dismissal of the legitimacy of female athletes and a sense of resentment when a female athlete dares to test her wits against her male counterparts.

Though hardly void of sexism and the misogynistic attitudes present in many conventional sports, fencing promotes teamwork and collaboration across genders, and provides a playing field in which it is common for women to lay the smackdown on men. The piste is neutral ground, a place where there is never a certain victor, and where a sharp mind, competitive attitude and cunning strategy will often trump brawn. A male fencer who underestimates his female opponent is likely to make a swift exit from a tournament with his face in the dirt. When the mask is on, there is no “man,” there is no “woman,” there is no “veteran,” there is no “youth,” there is only “fencer.”

We admire and cheer for the fictional swordfighters of the world, like Brienne of Tarth, the Bride, and Princess Merida, yet fencing is full of real life, awe inspiring athletes who command the respect and adoration of male and female fencers alike. Whether it’s the ageless and timeless Valentina Vezzali who has netted six Olympic gold medals and 15 world championship gold medals; or Mariel Zagunis and Olga Kharlan who took the (fairly new) women’s saber event and raised the bar for success to new heights, we have plenty of living legends to look up to that aren’t in our books or on the silver screen— but right before our eyes.

A few weeks ago at a tournament, I had the opportunity to fence one of my readers who began the bout at a 4-1 deficit. She changed her game tactically, capitalized on my errors, and came back to win in priority. As we chatted after the bout, she explained to me that beating men in fencing was difficult, and that she often felt intimidated when she had to square off against men.  I was quick to dismiss her assertion.

“In my lifetime,” I told her, “I have participated in soccer, wrestling, boxing, basketball, football, baseball, and fencing to name a few. I’ve gone toe-to-toe with Olympic Gold Medalists and world champions. I boxed with former Boston Bruin Shawn Thornton and traded blows with former Cruiserweight title contender Rodney Toney.  But of all the opponents I’ve faced in each sport, there is no one who has invoked more fear in me than a particular teenage girl.” She laughed, and I explained to her that “if I had a dollar for every bout I lost to a woman, I would be able to retire at 28.”

In fencing, we shun a “locker room mentality.” We are a multicultural, multi-generational, and inclusive sport that fosters respect in our ranks regardless of age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or race—and we should have no place for anyone who thinks otherwise. For every sport or community that is quick to dismiss the participation of women, we need it in fencing, and it is critical to both our individual success and the success of the sport as a whole. The journey of fencing is for everyone, and what a joy it is to take it together.

4 thoughts on “When the Mask is On: on Women in Fencing

  1. This is part of why I wish there were high level open events instead of all the high level events being gender and/or age segregated..

    1. This is actually part of why the Cherry Blossom Open isn’t a ROC. We have mixed and women’s events, and we like it that way.

  2. Favorite line: When the mask is on, there is no “man,” there is no “woman,” there is no “veteran,” there is no “youth,” there is only “fencer.” Thanks for the reassurance!

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