In nice weather, some students choose to sit on the quad. Members of the Bowdoin Fencing Club, however, choose to duel on the Bowdoin College Museum of Art steps.
While the majority of practices are held in Sargent Gym, the team has been trying to garner more interest for the club by practicing publicly.
“We usually [fence at the Museum] to make us visible on campus and to make sure people know the fencing team exists,” said captain Benjamin Ratner ’19. “It’s a hell of a lot of fun and people don’t know about us because we only practice inside of a gym. So every now and then when the weather’s nice, we’ll go out there on the museum steps.”
The fencing club attends at least two or three tournaments per semester. Competition ranges from 30 entries in a Maine tournament to hundreds of entries in a regional one.
This Sunday, the fencing club attended the Granite State Open in New Hampshire. The Polar Bears competed in the “Mixed Foil” and “Mixed Epee” events. Marty Dang ’18 led the team in the “Mixed Foil” event, reaching the second round before losing to the second-seeded competitor. Ratner earned fifth place in the “Mixed Epee” competition, losing to the eventual champion.
In these tournaments, the team competes against many of its in-state rivals.
“The most visible [New England] team that we see besides Bowdoin is [the University of New Hampshire],” Ratner said. “They have a strong program. Bates and Colby we see every now and then. We try to organize a joint practice with them every once and awhile, but I think it’s safe to say Bowdoin fencing has the strongest team of those three.”
The team currently has 11 members, and while it encourages all students to participate, it also values its small size.
“We strongly believe that the club thrives when it’s small and everyone knows each other really well and it’s a small tight-knit group. We’re able to all travel in one van to these tournaments, so it’s not our goal to become a massive club on campus,” Ratner said. “Keeping it around 15 is fantastic. It gives everyone plenty of people to fence. Everyone knows each other. There’s a strong communal bond and, most importantly, we can all compete.”
Nearly half of the current club’s members did not know how to fence before attending Bowdoin. Dang was among these students.
“[Fencing] looked cool. Growing up, you’d see sword fighting in the movies like ‘Princess Bride,’ Dang said. “It looked really fun, and so I thought coming to Bowdoin I wanted to do something I wouldn’t be able to otherwise.”
Ratner, who has been fencing for about nine years, and other older members of the club provide the new members with footwork and weapons training.
“People are very receptive,” said Ratner. “It’s not that hard to teach them the basics. It’s just getting that competitive experience that brings you to the next level.”
While club team status promotes inclusivity, the team’s club status also prevents the team from having a coach. This poses a challenge to the older members who are looking for experienced fencers to duel.
“[I] wish we had a coach,” said Dang. “It’d be nice if we had someone to teach us [and] coach us because at the moment there’s no one to teach the old[er] members. The only way [we can] improve is to go to tournaments.”
Besides just improving skills and competing against stiffer competition, one of the other main goals for the club this season is promoting a more social environment.
“We’re trying to have events, whether that’s going to Gelato Fiasco as a team or having a get together at someone’s apartment,” Ratner said. “We’re working on that, but I’d say right now the strongest element of social bonding is the long road trip to the tournament, in which we all get up at 6 a.m., bleary-eyed, and drive across the state.”
While fencing remains a relatively small sport in the U.S., the team has big dreams on Bowdoin’s campus.
“Our mission for the club on campus is to create a fun, supportive environment where any Bowdoin student, regardless of if they’ve fenced or not, can pick up a blade and have fun and learn the sport,” said Ratner.