Beginning to fence was like a dream come true for Zachary Sturgis. Starting at the young age of twelve, Sturgis has taken to the sport and its history, constantly honing his craft. At the time of the interview, he lives in Italy, training under Marco Vannini and Dario Finetti. Today, Sturgis took some time to discuss fencing and how the United States can support the sport. All images provided by Dan Bonfitto.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Zachary and thank you for joining us to talk about fencing!
Zachary Sturgis: I am excited to have this discussion with you!
MAYTT: When did you begin fencing and what aspects of the sport continue to motivate you to train and coach?
ZS: I began fencing at the age of twelve back in 2013, right after the 2012 Olympic Games in London. I am now twenty years old. I learned to fence at the Berks Fencing Club under Jon Weaver, now Vice President. I then looked for even better training and ended up training in Lancaster, Pennsylvania under coach Shawn Bertel, who was the former head coach of the Air Force Academy, a division 1 program. Since 2017, I have been coached by Mickey Zeljkovic, who is the current Olympic/National coach for the United States Paralympic Team. He was also head foil coach at University of Pennsylvania, National coach of Kuwait, and his home country of Serbia.
I fell in love with fencing at age fourteen and have been training hard ever since. After researching fencing online over the years, I found what countries historically had the most medals. Now, most people in America believe that England and Spain are the top fencing countries, in fact, Italy is. To put it into perspective, Italy’s second most successful Olympic sport is track and field, with a total of sixty-five medals. Their best Olympic sport is fencing, with a topping 131 overall Olympic medals.
I moved to Livorno, Italy when I decided to come to study with top-level coaches Marco Vannini and Dario Finetti at the Accademia Scherma della Livorno. I may not be the most gifted and or talented fencer in the world, but I am pretty hard working. I love the sport and if there is one thing I want people to know about fencing is that it is arguably the most beautiful sport out there. I am a huge fan of combat sports. I wrestled a very small amount after high school and many of my friends were and are top level wrestlers. I know many boxers, kick boxers, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners and judo players, but no combat sport in the world is as beautiful as fencing. I believe this one hundred percent. Many don’t think of it as a combat sport, but within an eighty-year span over 30,000 men were killed during the 1700s by the sword. I have had many conversations with other combat athletes about fencing and at first, I am somewhat made fun of, but they really start to see how much the tactics of attack and defense really play a part and compare with other combat sports.
The sport is constantly changing. Fencing is the complete balance between the physical and mental preparation. Since this is so apparent in the sport, there is no time to get lazy or sit back. To stay at a top competitive level, you must keep learning and training. Understanding the most modern version of the game is the best way to keep winning. I love traveling around the country and world, looking at what different coaches are teaching in the states, but also Europe and Asia.
That being said, not only do I want to get the most current info about the sport but passing that onto a new generation of athletes is most important. That way we can keep our country at the top in terms of the world circuit as well as the athletes at the regional and local level.
MAYTT: How have you seen the training regimen change or modify itself since you began fencing? Would you consider these modifications and adaptations to have positive or negative effects on current fencers? How so?
ZS: Within the past ten years or so, the concept of the sport has changed a lot. Athletes would only go to practice, warm up and stretch some, take a lesson and fence. Now, even more than before, fencers are starting to lift weights, condition, and use mental coaches to get an edge over their competition. This is most evident in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) fencing, but now more than ever in middle/high school. Athletes are getting much more physically prepared than before.
This will only help us as a country. I myself started training five times a week when I was a freshman in high school. I started at the Parisi Speed School where I learned how to lift, run, and do many exercises correctly. Every fencer can lunge and move up and down the strip, but can you get to the target faster than your opponent? That is where the athletic side comes in. If you aren’t in decent or top shape at a national competition, you won’t make it past the second round.
Fencing used to be an extremely slow or somewhat flashy because before the electric scoring machine was used regularly; touches had to be spotted with the naked eye. Fencers wanted to make the touches obvious for the directors and so they slowed things down. Now that we have scoring machines and instant replay, things move so much faster. This requires fencers to have incredible endurance. Fencing is the second fastest sport in the Olympics games; the first is rifle shooting.
MAYTT: As you have traveled extensively around the world for fencing, how different is other countries’ fencing compared to that of America’s? Is America on par with the rest of the world or is the Land of Free dragging behind a bit in the wake of other countries?
ZS: When it comes to other countries especially in Europe and Asia the way they fence is very different. You can tell this with something as simple as how they get on guard. French style is very different from Russia. Italian is different from Hungarian, just like American is different than Polish or Japanese. Since the United States Olympic program isn’t government funded this can make it very hard for some of our athletes to find good training partners and coaching. Fortunately, USA Fencing is helping more and more with supporting our national/world/Olympic teams.
In the states, we have NCAA sports which is very good. Unfortunately, when most of the athletes are finished with their university careers, they stop doing their sport overall. In Europe the athletes have the ability to become professional through competing for different branches of the military. The government pays them to compete in their sport and will send them to competitions. This enables them to keep competing even after they are finished with university. Instead of having NCAA Championships they have Under 23 National and International Championships. It gives Europeans and Asians the ability to compete at an extremely high level when they are university age.
If it were currently the 1950s or 1980s, I would be saying that the Europeans dominate everything, and we could only dream of becoming champions. I am proud to say that since the late 1990s the United States has been a massive powerhouse in international fencing. We are winning and crushing the competition at every level. From Cadet (U17) and Junior (U20) world championships to Senior world championships we are one of the premier countries in the world. Many of the top athletes in the world are coming to train with us. Historically, we have had terrible results, but we have now solidified ourselves as a top tier contender.
MAYTT: That is an interesting comparison. What was the fencing community like when you first started fencing? Was it a robust community, teeming with fencers, or was it characterized by small pockets of clubs and schools isolated from each other?
ZS: When I started fencing, America was finally breaking through. There was an extremely strong competitive community in Europe and Asia. Although we were nothing like we are now, the country had a National/Olympic team that was young and new overall, but everyone was extremely talented and hard working. There were a ton of fencing clubs, unfortunately the media didn’t really cover any of them because social media hadn’t really taken off yet for advertising fencing.
There weren’t as many clubs as there are now. There were many clubs in Boston, New Jersey, New York City, California, and Philadelphia, and still are, of course. But now there are many more in the Midwest and even the South.
MAYTT: Fencing has been around for centuries and the public’s perception of it changes with each generation. How did the American public view fencing when you began, and have you seen a change in that perception since you started?
ZS: Not many people really knew about fencing other than seeing movies like The Princes Bride and Zorro when I first started. If there was any coverage of the sport, it was usually mocked or made fun of. Since the 2012 Olympic Games, things have changed a lot in America. Fencers like Race Imboden, Miles Chamley-Watson, and many other Olympic fencers have become successful fashion models that brought the sport into the fashion world because of the unique gear we wear. It even reminds people of the old days of tennis with the gear being all white from head to toe.
With the world success our country has had, magazines like The Players Tribune and Time have done great articles about fencing that really showcase the sport. Cultural icons like Ibtihaj Muhammad and Beatrice Vio (Italy), who are fencers, have become well known. Ibtihaj was the first Muslim African American woman to win a medal for the US in any sport during the Olympics back in 2016 Rio as a women’s saber fencer in the team event. “Bebe” Vio who is an amputee having all four limbs removed as a child. She is double Paralympic champion and has over one million followers on Instagram.
Even though it still gets made fun of in some instances, the sport now has some real respect because people are really seeing how we train and compete. With success at the Olympics games, comes respect for the sport. If it’s any medal, it’s still a medal.
MAYTT: Tells us about the history of Berks Fencing Club. Who founded the club and how has the club itself helped elevate fencing in the region?
ZS: Now I wasn’t around for the founding, of course, but I do know that the club was established in 2001. There were many people who were involved with the founding, and I have met everyone except one I believe. The original founding members were Doctor Joe Leoni, Doctor Adam Feldman, Marci Christian, and Jon Weaver.
My now good friend and training partner, Adam Feldman, had moved into the area and become a well-known cardiologist. Jon Weaver who is the current Vice President and former President of the club, was an editor or writer for the Reading Eagle. He did an article on Adam Feldman and his past has a massive success in college. Feldman had a college record of 112 and 9 along with four all American titles and an Individual NCAA Championship title while fencing Division 1 for Penn State University. The article was a huge success and with over a hundred people asking where they could learn to fence, a club was born. A few people that had previously fenced who were living in the area organized themselves and started a club.
Fencing is still not too popular in my area, but that gives us much room to grow. I personally believe that we are just scraping the surface in what we could do with the sport in Berks County. Since we’ve had so many people come through the program, it is gaining more and more notoriety. With the return of Adam Feldman (1986 NCAA Champion and Veteran National Champion) and a new addition, one of the 2021 Tokyo Olympic coaches, Mickey Zeljkovic at our club, we have turned the club into a potential top level training center.
MAYTT: Thank you for the insight! How has the club been affected by the constant storm that is the COVID pandemic? In your opinion, how has the club adapted and survived during the pandemic, and do you think those changes will stay with the club and/or fencing even after the end of COVID?
ZS: We are an all-volunteer club, so no one lost any real money. This made it easy for us to take a hiatus from fencing and return stronger than ever. With the exception of wearing masks and some social distancing, not a lot has changed.
The only direction I see the club going is up. With new additions to the coaching staff, along with a new location and willing athletes, I have a feeling COVID won’t be a big issue at all after things have cleared up. When it comes to USA Fencing, I believe they will be lifting some restrictions when things look better, but will continue to ensure the safety of all the athletes.
MAYTT: Who do you feel had the most influence in establishing fencing throughout Pennsylvania and the Northeast? What made these fencers and coaches stand out from their contemporaries?
ZS: There isn’t one direct person I can see, but an event that happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the fall of the Berlin Wall had an impact on fencing in the United States. The Soviet Union was a machine when it came to sports from wrestling, weightlifting, gymnastics, and of course, fencing. At the time, the Soviets were relatively new to the sport in overall history, but that didn’t stop them from steam rolling competition from the 1960s through the mid-1980s. When the Berlin Wall came down, many Eastern European people came to America, and with them came the fencing coaches and athletes. Most of the world still trembled at the idea of having to face an Italian or Frenchmen, but the USSR did take everyone by surprise with how quickly they became dominant.
As I may have mentioned before, fencing has always been in America. The Fencers Club in New York City is the oldest in the country, opening in 1883 – the sport has always been around. The success, or should I say, the lack thereof, of American fencing for most of the twentieth century, wasn’t highlighted too much in pop culture. But with the surge of Eastern European fencers and coaches along with other immigrants coming to America in the 1980s and 1990s, gave us what we needed. With new training tactics and ideas, along with some early success, clubs all around the Northeast and the country in general started to grow and grow leading us to national and international success.
Some legendary American coaches to highlight are Buckie Leach, US Olympic/NCAA coach; Emmanuel Kadovav, NCAA coach for Penn State; Simon Gershon, Olympic and national foil coach; and Csaba Elthes, a top Hungarian saber coach. Each of these coaches laid the foundation of what American fencing is today. There are more I could mention, but these were some of the greats.
MAYTT: How has the Olympics helped maintain fencing in the public eye? If the sport was not in the Olympics, would fencing still have the following it does today?
ZS: It would be sinful if it wasn’t an Olympic sport. And it would not have a following like it does today. I personally can’t see how that would ever happen. Fencing being taken out of the Olympics is like the IOC (International Olympic Committee) taking track and field out of the games, it wouldn’t happen. And the current president of the IOC is Thomas Bach. He was Men’s Team foil champion in 1972 Munich, a fencer for Germany.
It would probably have an extremely small following if it was removed and many would drop out of the sport in general.
Fencing is one of only five sports to be featured in the modern games since 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who himself was a French foil fencer. Internationally, especially in Europe, fencing is extremely popular. And in countries like Italy, Germany, France, Russia, and Hungry fencing could be considered second to soccer, as results show. The Olympics have given these athletes a platform in their countries to become sports icons. In America, we are still getting there, but the fact that fencing is a combat sport which is attractive to top level athletes and is also an Olympic sport means that there will be many generations of champions from all over the world.
If I make it to an Olympic Games, I’ll be the happiest man alive! [Laughs] If I don’t, which I most likely won’t, I’ll have a lifetime of stories and adventure along with international experience to show for it.
MAYTT: I see. Within the combat sports/arts community, Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) has been growing steadily since the late 1990s. In your experience, how have you seen HEMA effect fencing? Is it a positive or a negative effect and do these effects provide a bridge to cross-community interaction?
ZS: Any type of fencing is good fencing. Each of the disciplines are separate but similar. I haven’t seen a huge effect on Olympic fencing from HEMA. Each of the arts like to go at each other every now and again. The HEMA community is much smaller compared to the “sport fencing” community.
Let me put it this way. Fencing and college/amateur wrestling are very similar in the idea that they do teach you different ways to fight or handle yourself in a martial situation if one ever came up. If you ever were going to pick a fight with a Division I college wrestler, you will most likely lose that fight, badly.
HEMA is similar to jujitsu because they teach the most real-world scenarios in how to actually fight in a life-or-death situation. Say, a street fight or sorts. We know that BJJ (Brazilian Jiujitsu) really works in real life altercations, and I have no doubt in my mind HEMA would as well. But both college/amateur wrestling and sport fencing teach real tactical and technical options when it comes to the combat within each discipline. HEMA and sport fencing have their differences but, in the end, who doesn’t love learning to sword fight?! [Laughs]
The two don’t really come in contact with each other too often and I don’t think it’s bad if they don’t. I don’t get the feeling that either really needs to rely on one another for support. If someone starts one discipline, they usually won’t do both at the same time or ever for that matter. I don’t believe it’s a bad thing, it’s just that it really doesn’t happen too much.
MAYTT: Given your time within the sport, what do you think the future holds for fencing? How will the sport adapt itself to a post-COVID world?
ZS: In America, at least, the sport can only grow. The number of people attending national tournaments (NAC or North American Cup) is growing every year. The country has over 40,000 fencers who are registered with USA Fencing and the quality of the tournaments are becoming better and better. Within my lifetime, I want to see fencing being regularly shown on ESPN and highlights shown on Sports Century, just as fencing is shown all the time in Europe on Eurosport. In Asia, the top fencers are always on talk shows, talking about their latest success. I would love to see our Olympic team get more attention. When on a late-night show, it would be nice to have a serious conversation about fencing like any basketball team would about basketball. Once you have a small understanding of the sport, you will see how absolutely demanding and beautiful it can be.
Although fencing is an ancient sport, it has always been in the forefront of ingenuity when it comes to the use of technology. The electric scoring machine was first used in the Epee in the 1930, the Foil in the 1950s, and the Saber in the 1980s. The epee used electric scoring before baseball and basketball were using electric scoring boards at large games across the country.
The IOC and the FIE (International Federation of Fencing/Fédération Internationale d’Escrime – French) have done well even during COVID. Just as in Berks Fencing, with the easing of all COVID mandates across the world, the only way is up. More tournaments will be held along with more training camps and more fencers willing to join.
It’s truly Physical Chess.
MAYTT: Final question. What can the American fencing community as a whole do to help both raise awareness of the sport and change its perception to a more serious tone? How long do you think it will take to shed the “comedic” skin that many seem to attribute to fencing?
ZS: First and foremost, it must be televised. The public must be able to see the sport from the bottom to top. Seeing it at the Olympics is amazing but since the games only happen every four years the public forgets about it the next year. Being in the newspaper and on posters around the country definitely wouldn’t hurt either.
The average fencer could reach out to their local newspaper and ask the paper to do small articles on fencing. If there is a larger or an important tournament in the area or if there is an athlete that is having success in the area, ask them to cover it. Since it’s an Olympic sport and one that the United States is good at, why not cover the athletes attempting to reach their own Olympic immortality.
MAYTT: Thank you again for talking with us about fencing!
ZS: It was my absolute pleasure!