Three hours a day, four days a week, Saturday mornings or weekdays after school, senior William Holz pokes, slashes and blocks.
William is a professional fencer, and every hour spent training in the gym is dedicated to improving his game for the international stage — a process that has yielded impressive results. Last year, William placed eighth overall in under-16 saber fencing at the Junior Olympics.
His fencing career began nearly a decade ago when his mother signed him and his younger brother sophomore Daniel Holz up for fencing classes.
“My mom was really sick and tired of us sword fighting with each other with plastic swords and lightsabers all the time. She was trying to find something to put those skills to use and she was like, “Ok, why don’t we try fencing?’” William said.
While primarily involved in soccer during his elementary years, William quickly made the switch to fencing. This early decision was key in boosting the trajectory of his career.
“For most people you have to start young. You want to build those reflexes and speed so that everything feels natural by the time you are my age, so that you don’t feel any discomfort,” William said. “It’s a strategy base because everything’s happening so fast that you’re basically playing human chess with your opponent, trying to anticipate their moves and react to them in the snap of a finger.”
William explains that modern fencing has three disciplines — épée, foil and saber — and each one comes with its strategic demands and set of rules.
For instance, épée and foil fencing emphasize poking more than slashing. Épée fencing allows hits anywhere on the body, while saber restricts hits to the waist-up and foil only grants points on hits to the torso. Additionally, épée and foil blades are thin, round and flexible in comparison to the wide and rigid blades used in saber fencing. Still, all three disciplines involve one-on-one combat within the confines of the piste, or boundary strip.
William specializes in saber fencing, but he believes that some skills do carry over between different disciplines.
“If I went to an épée tournament or foil tournament, I probably wouldn’t get destroyed because I can still parry and block attacks. But, as far as pace, I feel like I would rush myself because they are much more patient disciplines,” William said.
As a result, fencers at the highest level tend to pick a discipline and stick with it throughout the duration of their career, allowing them to develop a skill set that matches their style.
For William, this means an aggressive playstyle that puts an emphasis on offense.
“I feel I have really strong attacks. I’m able to time my hits off-tempo — basically the most unorthodox way possible — so there’s no way for them to anticipate when I’m hitting or where I’m hitting,” William said. As for his weaknesses, William said that defense is an area that could use some improvement, especially against patient and poised opponents that choose their moments to attack.
Regardless of playstyle, one thing that all fencers must focus on regardless of discipline is footwork.
“The way you can get speed is such an important aspect of fencing. Speed and interval work allows you to push your advantage and get your opponent on their heels,” William said. “A lot of times speed is the sole determinant of what we do.”
Fencers walk a fine line between speed and technique, William said. Quick and balanced footwork is not only beneficial in competition, but is also required by the rules. As fencers move across the strip, their legs must remain apart; crossing legs is considered a fault and a yellow card. In William’s experience, mastering footwork can be harder for people who started fencing later than he did.
“People who start later, I often see, have a really tough time with footwork because it’s so different from how other running sports work,” William said. “If you start young it feels almost natural to be in that position. I don’t feel any discomfort.”
Though beginning at a young age certainly aided in his development, it has taken thousands of hours of practice for William to reach his current level of play.
Each week, he dedicates up to twelve hours to fencing, including three hours each Saturday morning. Practices typically begin with 15-20 minutes of warm ups before diving into footwork and bladework drills and eventually practice bouts, or scrimmages.
William is the oldest fencer at his practices, so he acts as a mentor for younger kids in the program. As a result, his focus has shifted more towards lifting up and training younger fencers during his practices, allowing him to both hone his skills and pass on the techniques that he was taught by older teammates when he first began fencing.
Maintaining an organized routine is also essential before competitions, said William. In order to physically prepare for a tournament, he must begin a day in advance.
“I hate eating the day of my tournaments, so I make sure that I eat a lot of food in the days beforehand, and make sure I’m hydrated. I like to get eight and a half hours of sleep specifically because if I get more I feel drowsy. If I don’t get enough, my energy levels crash,” William said.
In terms of mental preparation, William tries to avoid worrying about the future. While he says that he thinks about fencing at least once a day, he prevents it from having an emotional impact on his everyday life. In the rare cases where he does get nervous before or during a tournament, he finds that socializing is often an efficient outlet for stress.
“I love talking to teammates, actually. Talking to teammates for some reason is a great stress reliever for me so I feel a lot more comfortable,” William said.
By the end of 2023, William will have eclipsed 140 tournaments attended and 700 matches played, but his favorite fencing memory is easily the 2022 Junior Olympics.
After a poor showing in the first round, William was just three spots away from failing to qualify. He advanced but was seeded against stronger opponents that would make a higher finish much more difficult.
However, it was here that William managed to put together one of the best performances of his career, he said.
He defeated his next opponent, won two consecutive matches by a single point each and beat one of the strongest players in the tournament to advance to the final rounds. He ultimately placed eighth overall.
For William, the experience represented more than just a memory; it also served as a valuable lesson on perseverance.
“I just felt great about sticking with it even though the odds were against me coming so low out of pools, and I was able to push all the way,” he said.
Recently, William moved up an age class from under-16 fencing to under-19 fencing. In order to compete internationally, he needs to perform well in any upcoming national tournaments, he said.
While preparing for these tournaments, William is also looking past high school, as he is graduating from Sacramento Country Day in less than a year.
“I’m looking to get recruited by school staff and fence in the NCAA, of course, that’s my ultimate goal,” William said. Until then, he wants to end his final year of high school fencing on a high note.
In his personal life, as much as in his tournaments, William said he wants to focus on the present rather than worrying about what is ahead.
Still, for the time being, he believes that his saber — and future — will both point him in the right direction. It is up to him to wait for the opportunities to present themselves and strike.