En Garde: Fencers face off at Mississippi State

Five years ago, Skye Cooley went to the Joe Frank Sanderson Center at Mississippi State for an afternoon swim. He left a few hours later with a couple of bruises and a new hobby.

Cooley, an assistant professor of communication and martial arts enthusiast, had just moved to Starkville from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. On his way to the pool, he passed a studio where people were smashing into each other with swords and grew curious.

He discovered they were fencing and wanted in on the action. He was obliged by all 5 feet 4 inches of 53-year-old Nancy Losure. As Cooley recalled, it didn’t go well.

”I was amazed at how good she was and how terrible I was,” Cooley said. “It’s a true mental and physical challenge. But once you get used to the speed and fundamentals, it becomes addicting.”

Now faculty adviser for the Dueling Dawgs fencing club, Cooley has gotten better at wielding a blade, often setting pace for the club’s dozen or so regulars. Some compete in state and regional competitions, bringing home hardware for their efforts.

Cooley admits he’s still not as good as Losure, a 40-year veteran fencer who founded the club two decades ago. A defeat at her hands in January still plays fresh in his mind.

“I underestimated her, and she ran me down,” he said.

A left-handed fencer, Losure said she doesn’t waste any energy and uses her savvy to overcome opponents. Her speed and precision are a potent combination, but nothing is more dangerous than her experience.

“Even though I’m not as fast as I once was, I’m smarter, so it comes out even,” she said.

With evidence of fencing bouts dating as far back as ancient Egypt, the sport that pits two swordsmen against one another has enjoyed a rich European tradition for hundreds of years. Cooley said the live-action, contact sport combines the strategy of chess with the physicality of boxing, developing hand-eye coordination and cardiovascular health.

The Dueling Dawgs compete in Olympic-style fencing, using light weapons called sabres, foils and epees. All weapons have blunted ends, so opponents don’t score by stabbing at each other, but rather earn points based on “touches.”

Bouts involve two fencers—each wearing protective armor and headgear—facing each other on a 3-foot wide strip, trying to thrust and parry their way to 15 touches. When using epees, fencers gain touches anywhere on their opponent’s body. Sabres allow touches on the head, arms and torso. With foils, the weapon most commonly used in Olympic fencing, bouts award touches only on the torso.

Anyone who is a member of the campus’s Sanderson Center, where the team practices, can join Dueling Dawgs for $10. The swords and equipment are provided.

“Bring an open mind,” Cooley said. “If you don’t mind getting hit with the end of a sword, then it’s a blast. The speed is sometimes frightening to people. It’s tough at first not to want to bail off the strip when someone charges at you.”

To overcome those flight instincts, the club doesn’t throw its novices directly into battle.

Tony Francis, a wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture graduate student from Raleigh, North Carolina, usually takes in the club’s beginners to teach them the footwork. After about four weeks of practice, they work their way to bouts.

He stresses with new fencers how important it is to keep backs straight and steps short—when advancing and retreating—because technique is often the difference between winning and losing.

“In a game where 1/125th of a second can make a difference, little movements can be a big deal,” he said. “Speed and technique will win over body size in fencing. There’s a lot of athleticism involved, but you need more than that to win.”

More than a competitive sport, the club also took on a role in a Shackouls Honors College production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Cooley and team member Nate Phillips, a graduate student in computer science from Collierville, Tennessee, landed the roles of Paris and an unnamed bar goer in the Shakespearean tragedy.

Cooley said their characters dueled in a bar during the production, giving them the opportunity not only to entertain the audience but to display a skill they so desperately wish to teach others.

That’s what Losure had in mind when she founded the club in 1996—passing her knowledge onto future generations.

She started fencing in 1976 as a freshman walk-on at Tri-State University in Angola, Indiana. Even as an upstart, she performed quite well, earning MVP honors on a co-ed team, as well as a trip to the national collegiate tournament. She continued fencing in Michigan after college where she worked as a chemical engineer before joining the Mississippi State faculty in 1994.

The first faculty adviser for the club, Losure remained a member after returning to the private sector in 2001. Even at her age, she said she’s still a contender.

“I’m an aging female, and I still kick the butts of people in their 20s and 30s,” she explained. “There’s no other sport where I could do that. If I had to run to stay fit, I wouldn’t. Yoga is fine, but it’s not as fun as hitting people with swords.”

By Zack Plair | Photo by Beth Wynn | Video by David Garraway