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Skip those jokes about Zorro and Robin Hood

By JOE OSTER/ VN SPORTS EDITOR
On February 23, 2016

Three years ago, freshman Brock Bendes was bored on a Tuesday night in Shiple.

Sparked by a flier hanging in the freshman dormitory, Bendes stumbled into one of UDM’s greatest and most unheralded traditions: the fencing team.

Categorized by three different weapons (sabre, épée and foil), fencing glory is usually reserved for the prestige universities, like Duke or the Ivy League schools.

But in 1972, led by future Olympian Tyrone Simmons, the Detroit Titans shocked NYU and Columbia to capture the NCAA National Championship.

Simmons won the foil competition, while teammates Ken Blake and Freddie Hooker placed second in sabre and fourth in épée, respectively.

All three men came from Philadelphia as high school teammates to fence for coach Dick Perry and the Titans.

Even with its school-wide hallowed athletic tradition, to this day UDM’s lone national championship rests in the hands of its fencing team.

Still, UDM fencing flies under the radar. For example, for the past year and a half the fencing team hasn’t had a trainer provided by the athletic department.

“I don’t think the athletic department or the other sports teams think of us as student-athletes,” said Bendes. “We are very much the black sheep of the family.”

This is perhaps due to lack of understanding of the sport by the general public.

Even UDM fencing coach Todd Dressell, who is in his 17th season, seems to agree.

“It’s one of those sports that everyone has heard of, but no one has really ever seen,” said Dressell.

Most people’s knowledge of fencing ends at swords and white jumpsuits. Obviously, it’s a bit more than that.

The sword used in a fight, or bout, divides fencers into essentially three smaller teams.

To win a bout, a fencer needs to get five “touches” of an opponent’s target area with his/her weapon. These weapons are sabres, foils and épées.

“It’s not just two teams (men’s and women’s). It’s really six teams because each gender has the three weapons … and each of them is a little different,” explained Dressell.

While these weapons more or less look the same, each sword has its own distinguished style, targets and scoring system.

“Sabre is considered a sprint, foil is just a normal 5k and épée is the marathon,” said junior fencer Austin Carlisle.

Épée is the heaviest, longest weapon and also has the biggest bell guard.

“Épée is the most realistic in terms of dueling,” said Bendes. “That’s because you can touch anywhere on their body. Everything is fair game… There are no rules, pretty much, as long as you’re not hitting people for no reason or verbally assaulting people.”

Foil is traditionally the orientation weapon for most new fencers and is a bit of a combination of épée and sabre. Like épée, foil swords have an electronically charged button on the tip that triggers a light when a fencer records a touch on the opponent’s target area.

The target area for foil bouts is solely the main torso and neck, which forces fencers to be creative.

“(Foil) is not as physical, but they do some really ridiculous acrobatic stuff, where they’ll touch each other behind their backs and through their legs,” said Bendes. “They think of really weird ways to get touches.”

Sabre is conventionally the most aggressive weapon.

While épée and foil must use the tip of the blade, a sabre may win a touch using the tip and the edge of the blade. With a larger target area, sabre bouts are the quickest of any weapon. A full five-touch bout would be lucky to last more than one minute.

“(Sabre) mimics cavaliers and cavalry charges where you’re just slashing at things,” said Bendes of his weapon of choice. “You’re not poking; you’re hitting people.”

Led by coach Dressell, the men’s team is on the rise coming off a 3-2 finish earlier in February at the Wayne State Duals, which included wins over Wayne State and Oakland.

While usually made up of walk-ons, the team recruited four students solely for fencing to lead the 2016 team: juniors Austin Carlisle and Aaron Dittel and freshmen Josh Blackburn and Algrid Szumlas.

Carlisle, Dittel and Blackburn have been fencing for Dressell since high school at Renaissance Fencing Club in Troy.

The RFC was founded by Dressell in 1996. He is still on the board and head sabre and épée coach there.

Led by Szumlas’ perfect 14-0 record, the foursome combined to go 47-5 in their bouts at the Wayne State Duals.

“It’s like a scorpion striking almost,” said Bendes, on watching Szumlas fence. “He’s one of the best fencers I’ve ever seen.”

Despite the talent on this year’s squad, UDM does have difficulty competing on the national stage. While many other collegiate teams are comprised of mostly walk-ons, the Titans are still forced to compete against the best fencers in the country and even the world.

In nearly every large meet, UDM is up against the powerhouses of the sport, such as Ohio State and Notre Dame, whose teams are often led by Olympians.

But the men’s team welcomes the challenge.

“Any victory is so satisfying,” said Carlisle. “They (the opponents) get so frustrated because it’s not fun for them anymore. There’s such an extrinsic motivation for them at this point that all intrinsic motivation is just gone. It’s just a stressful event for them.”

Bendes seconds the notion.

“Any time you even get a touch on them it drives them insane,” agreed Bendes. “They’re the Olympians, and here you are a walk-on athlete from Detroit beating them or getting touches.”

With nothing to lose, the Titans seem to relish the freedom and use it to fuel their identity.

“The biggest thing you take with you when fencing for (UDM) is that we are the school from Detroit. We have the bright red socks with Titans on them; we are the Detroiters,” said Bendes.

“And because of that we fence a little dirtier than people are used to. We’re very much gritty – which sounds weird when talking about fencing. It’s a mentality you bring to it where we grind out and bring a lot of determination.”

He added, “We know that we are up against these titans of schools, but we are Detroit. They’re (opposing schools) surprised by the ferocity that we come at them with.”

Even with the influx recruits and talent, the fencing team in able to retain the purity of the student-athlete that most major sports cannot.

“When people use the word student-athlete, I don’t think of myself,” explained Bendes. “I haven’t felt like a student-athlete, and I still don’t really. I just know that I fence, but I’m (also) a student.”

Dressell likes this mentality.

“It appeals to my sense of what college athletics is supposed to be, as opposed to what it really is. Right now, it’s a huge gigantic sports monopoly,” said Dressell. “I’m very proud that my kids are the scholar-athletes that the NCAA and college athletics are supposed to be about.” 

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