Sophomore William Holz. (Photo by Arijit Trivedi)

THE SWORDSMAN SERIES: Fencing an Olympian

Sophomore William Holz has been a saber fencer at Premier Fencing Academy for seven years. This monthly blog covers some of his most important experiences as he journeys towards his goal of becoming an internationally-ranked fencer. The event covered in this blog is at the October North American Cup.

I step onto the fencing strip — queasy with anticipation — ready to face my opponent: 2021 Olympian Khalil Thompson. His shadow casts an uncanny feeling of dread in my soul, but I know my years of training have led up to this moment.

The referee says, “Ready, fence!” and I launch toward my competitor. But wait, how did I even find myself competing here? Let’s rewind to a few hours prior.

It’s Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Columbus, Ohio. I am torn from the blissful sheets of the hotel bed by my mom’s, “WAKE UP — WE GOTTA GO TO THE TOURNAMENT!” 

Stumbling out of bed, I groggily check the time: 6:30 a.m. EST. The warm comfort of the hotel bed is a worthy sacrifice to make in order to fence in this tournament. 

Instead of competing in a usual 16 and under age group, I’m fencing in the big leagues: Division 1 (a competition filled with fencers with a “C” or higher rating). Fencers earn ratings by placing high in ranked tournaments. Ratings can range from an A to an E, and all fencers start as unrated.

For reference, most NCAA fencers are either A-rated or B-rated fencers. Currently, I am a C-rated fencer, so I was able to qualify for the Division 1 event. These tournaments contain some of the best fencers in the world, and Olympians are often on the roster.  

Now fast-forward a bit. After an hour of warm-up and practice fencing, the pool round started at 9 a.m.

A “pool” round consists of six to seven fencers, and each fencer rotates on and off the strip, fencing each competitor to a total of 5 touches or points until they have a cumulative score. A fencer’s placement moving forward depends on their results, and the bottom 20% of fencers coming out of the pool rounds are immediately eliminated. 

After being placed in a  formidable pool of four A-fencers, one B-fencer and another C-fencer, I claimed victory in half my matches. 

After the end of the pool round, the Direct Elimination (DE) round began. I was pitted up against Olympian Kahlil Thompson. When I read his name, I was scared yet excited; I couldn’t believe I would be taking on someone of his caliber.

The moment I heard the referee shout, “Fence!” I dashed forward, and the bout began.

Taking two advances forward, I extended my arm and lunged, my saber striking his right flank. He had done the same to me, so the referee called the point a draw. 

The score was tight throughout the beginning of the match — one point I would score, then he would score the next. 

However, things started to take a left turn after the referee made a few bad calls against me. Every time Thompson and I would hit at the same time, the referee would call it Thompson’s point instead of throwing it out. Thompson, capitalizing on his lead, began taking more risk-return tradeoffs while I was forced to play safer due to the point deficit.

I fenced as hard as possible throughout the bout, but in the end, I wasn’t able to outmatch his vast experience and technique. He ultimately had higher control of his blade and better footwork overall. Due to this, he was able to overwhelm me in speed and whip his blade around my parries. Unfortunately, I lost 15-7 but was very pleased with my performance against the Olympian.

Winning a Division 1 event requires immense skill, and consistently placing highly is almost as arduous. Obviously, I’m not there yet, but I’m still making progress. 

During my last attempt at Division 1 a couple of months ago, I was eliminated after a poor performance in pools and couldn’t compete in DEs. In order to improve next time, I need to work on the speed of parries so I can keep up with someone of Thompson’s caliber in the future. It will take a lot more hard work, sweat and practice, but I will fight at every tournament to get to Thompson’s level and beyond.

— By William Holz

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