Crossing Swords

The National Fencing Tournament Returns to Austin

Hannah Bentley (l) fences with Evan Smith
Hannah Bentley (l) fences with Evan Smith (Photo By John Anderson)

If dying is easy and comedy's hard, where does that leave fencing? Yes, fencing, as in formal sword fighting, as in two guys with pointy weapons trying like hell to score points off each other through bodily contact. J.C. Shakespeare, stand-up comedian and Chronicle contributor, is taking a brief lesson from Gary Murray, proprietor of the Round Rock Fencing Club and recent recipient of the USFA's Coach of the Year award for the Southern Region. This is Shakespeare's preparation for the forthcoming Media Challenge, a sort of promotional bonus event to the National Fencing Championships, the latter of which is back in Austin for the second time in two years. And this is only the second time in his 37 years that Shakespeare has held a sword -- a foil, to be precise -- with a pistol grip. His celebrity opponent will be Bob Fonseca of KLBJ's "Dudley & Bob" morning show, and this deejay, who's even less acquainted with foils and epees and sabres, (oh my!) may be in for the fencing equivalent of a Rude Awakening Call at 10am, on July 6, at the Austin Convention Center.

You might think a guy named "Shakespeare" would have some kind of genetic disposition toward swordplay, and you wouldn't be too wrong. The comic's standing there, stylishly draped in raggedy black shorts, green hospital top, sneakers and fencing mask, following the instructions of the fully regulation-clad Murray, and he's not doing bad at all. The two men are advancing and retreating across the half-shaded top level of a parking garage in Georgetown, thrusting and parrying, riposting and deceiving. Of course, Murray's holding himself back and offering a constant staccato of advice to his fledgling opponent; but Shakespeare is, all things considered, shaking his spear pretty damned well.

Not that his focus has completely left the stand-up stage, even here.

"Okay," says Murray. "Now I'll attack. Remember the moves I've just showed you, and just do the first thing that enters your mind."

Murray raises his foil.

Shakespeare turns to me. "Shoot him!" he says.

(l-r): saber, épée, foil
(l-r): saber, épée, foil (Photo By John Anderson)

Meanwhile, back in Austin, in the downtown headquarters of his world-class architecture firm, Fence Austin chairman Ben Heimsath is explaining the origins of the National Championships' repeat presence in the river city.

"The United States Fencing Association in Colorado Springs had been contacted by the Austin Convention & Visitors' Bureau about five years ago, and eventually they put this whole deal together to get us the National Championships in '98," says Heimsath.

"We found this out in '97, during the Championships in Santa Clara. And we were like, 'They're coming to Austin next? Oh my God.' So we had this hurry-up meeting with about 25 people sitting in a big restaurant, we're all tearing our hair out and going 'What can we do, what can we do?'

"And I have this strategy where I don't like to have to take on more responsibility. But if I'm going to spend effort on something, and I realize it'd go better if I chair it, then I'll chair it. And so, after that meeting, I was chair of the damned thing!"

Heimsath laughs heartily, the sound reverberating off the framed pictures of the huge churches his architectural firm specializes in designing. I can easily picture this trim Harvard grad in fencing gear, carving up some hapless opponent; but I'd be wrong -- Heimsath doesn't indulge. His wife was a fencer in college, and his two sons are heavily into the sport (son Andrew having taken a gold medal at the revelatory '98 tournament), but the chairman's busy with other, more organizational weapons.

"I was co-chair with another fencer," says Heimsath, sipping coffee. "Over the years we progressed, and this time around, for the 2000 Nationals, we were ready. We solicited this one." He grins proudly. "Fencers are wonderfully individualistic. It's like, 'I'm in line with my opponent, I have a weapon, he or she has a weapon, and one of us will win.' There's nothing gray here. One will walk away victorious, and the other one will want to figure out how to do that next time.

Tim French (l) fences with Phyllis Weigard.
Tim French (l) fences with Phyllis Weigard. (Photo By John Anderson)

"That's the way fencers are," he says. "The clubs were such strong clubs that, at first, they just couldn't work with one another. But in response to the Nationals coming here ... well, [the clubs have] really pulled together. Fence Austin was created in response to that incredible opportunity two years ago. And now we've grown to the point where, in planning, we have enough volunteers and enough financial resources to provide local coordinating for the USFA as they put on this tournament."

The Texas Fencing Academy, the UT Fencing Team, the Round Rock Fencing Club, and Salle Lagardere, these are the Austin teams represented at the National Championships this year. There are also more than 2,000 fencers from all over the United States, all going for the gold or perhaps placement on the U.S. Olympic Fencing Team.

You can witness this action for yourself (admission is free of charge at the Austin Convention Center through Sunday, July 9) and see the real version of moves you may have previously caught only in films. There won't be any musketeers leaping from balconies or hanging from chandeliers, but there will be plenty of men and women translating their months and years of practice into precise movement, into gambits of speed and dexterity intended to (metaphorically, at least) skewer their opponents.

Back in Georgetown with instructor Gary Murray and celeb fencer J.C. Shakespeare, the skewering lesson continues. It's mostly in the wrist, it seems, this style of combat, the wrist and the speed and the reach, which Murray points out while he drives the attack. Shakespeare doesn't quite have the wrist thing down, and his speed is hindered by unfamiliarity with the movements; but he's already keeping the tip of his foil in attack mode while blocking Murray's thrusts, and he's using his greater height and reach to full advantage. He's scoring some points, here, and not just because the instructor's doing him a favor.

It could be that KLBJ's Bob Fonseca is secretly taking a lesson or two, as well. It could be that Fonseca has spent the last few weeks in intensive training, in diligent Karate Kid-like study, practicing and practicing and constantly re-reading the dueling scene from The Princess Bride, in order to better defend the honor of his station.

Or it could be that Fonseca is, as they say, gonna go down.

Shakespeare and Murray plow onward, attacking and blocking, thrusting and deceiving, their bright foils clacking metallically, echoing slightly across the covered rooftop of the parking garage. It's quite a workout for these men, and their sweat fully compensates for the blood not being drawn.

"I just spent the afternoon fencing in Georgetown," I can imagine Shakespeare later telling a crowd in the homey darkness of Sixth Street's Velveeta Room, "and boy are my arms tired ..." end story

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