No Fence Sitting in This Match

The art of fencing and overcoming

By Corey Gibson

Students of fencing master Edward Wright at Corryville Recreation Center. Photo by Vinit Murthy.

Contending for an Olympic medal is itself an accomplishment. But some athletes, such as Edward Wright, had to contend with more than just the rigors of sport and competition to get there. Wright had to struggle as a child to even be allowed to get into the game.

1963 was a momentous time for the civil rights movement in the United States. President John F. Kennedy promised a civil rights bill. James Meredith became the first African-American student to graduate from the University of Mississippi. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech and issued his letters from Birmingham Jail after being arrested during protests against racial segregation – protests sometimes broken up by police with fire hoses and attack dogs. 1963 was also the year Edward Wright would join Brooklyn High School’s fencing team. Thirteen years later he would fence in the Olympics.

On a Saturday in late July, Wright walks into the Corryville Recreation Center wearing a worn yellow T-shirt that says, “A Champion Maker” in bold, black lettering across the front. He is hardly what someone would picture when they think about an Olympic fencer who is just past his prime. He is a stocky, about six feet tall, with long dreads that dip just past his shoulder. A few wiry gray hairs stick out in all different directions. He is wearing black sweats and Timberland boots.

Little beads of sweat trickle down his forehead as he arrives at the gymnasium, as if he were warming up before the class had even started. Wright tells his students to start preparing for the hour-long class. His voice is grizzly and worn, the voice of someone who continually shouts. Yet Wright, a soft-spoken individual, never yells at the students and tries to help them not only understand fencing, but understand where fencing can take them in their futures.

‘Not just stabbing’

Wright’s fencing career started in the form of soccer. He played soccer for three years on his Brooklyn junior high-school team in the late 1950s, before dreaming of making the high-school football team. At the time, Wright was a lot smaller than he is today and he couldn’t make the cut for the high school football team. So he went back to playing soccer, even though the coach would never put him in.

“I’d tell the coach to put me in,” Wright says. “I’d say, ‘Coach there’s five minutes left and we’re winning 10 to nothing.’ He never put me in. That’s how bad I was.”

Wright’s soccer coach suggested he try out for the fencing team. Although fencing was a foreign idea to Wright at the time, he found a place that taught fencing, gave it a shot and practiced seven days a week for an entire summer, sometimes practicing three to four hours a day.

“I even stopped going to church,” Wright says. “I wanted to make the team.”

The practicing paid off and Wright made the team in 1963. And he has been at it ever since. Wright placed fifth in the team-fencing event in the 1976 Olympics, was a U.S. National Championship Fencing finalist and most recently, in 1996, won the U.S. National Veteran Championship.

Reaching that level of competition was a struggle for Wright because of the color of his skin.

“Most of the clubs kept black people from joining,” he says.

The New York Fencing Club, at the time, had only one or two black members when Wright tried to join in the late ’60s. Wright didn’t agree with the stipulations the club set for him and decided not to join.

“They were racist,” he says.

Luckily, the man revered as “the father of American fencing” Georgio Santelli, was seeking out Wright. At first Wright was a bit timid to study under Santelli because of the intense workouts; Wright says he could hardly last 10 minutes. But after a few years he began studying under Santelli.

“He made champions out of bunch of us,” Wright says. “And by a bunch of us, I mean a bunch of black people.”

Wright wants to do the same thing for his students. He wants them to learn discipline, he wants them to become the best fencers they can possibly become and he wants to get scholarships for his students. Watching one of his classes, it is easy to tell that Wright pushes his students to perfect every aspect of their fencing.

“Because he stresses form … and execution, the movement is done correctly,” says David Jacobs, Wright’s assistant fencing instructor. “That translates into the kids not just stabbing or swinging or move backwards or forwards – they are having to have the discipline to do the movements correctly.”

The class is more of a workout than one might expect from a sport that has bouts as short as three minutes long. Although the air was humid and sweat droplets were forming on the forehead of Wright and most of his students, the grueling workout continues. The students, who range in ages from pre-teens to much older men and women, receive flurries of instructions from Wright.

“En-guard” Wright yells, clapping his hands to a beat he wants the students to follow as they lunge forward, ending with a thrust of the sword at an imaginary opponent. The students keep attacking forward until they reach the other side of the room. Wright then makes the students practice their retreat back to the side of the gymnasium they were previously on. The attack and retreat exercise continues for a short while as Wright dodges in and out of the seven students, correcting the stances of each and every person until they are all in unison, lunging across the gymnasium.

The right of way

After a few more times back and forth across the gymnasium, Wright stops the students in place and tells them to hold out their swords, called “foils,” for upwards of 60 seconds. Although a foil only weighs slightly more than one pound, the students counted off the 60 seconds in less than 30 seconds, just to get the exercise over with quicker. Wright continues to make the students hold out their foils and count at lower increments, from 60 to 30 to 20 to 10 and finally 5, until the students are visibly tired.

After another short break, the students, who all have their own bags of fencing equipment, put on their fencing masks and all-white fencing uniforms in preparation for the final phase of the class.

Nearing the end of the class, Wright takes each student aside for some one-on-one teaching while the rest of the students have their own bouts, in which two students fence and the others act as the referees. Scoring a point in fencing seems difficult, but refereeing a bout might be even more so. To score a point in fencing, and ultimately get to the five touches needed to win a bout, the fencer has to have “the right of way.” That is, the fencer has to initiate the attack or execute a block of his opponent’s attack, called a “parry,” before he can score. The tip of the foil is the second fastest moving object in sports, after a marksman’s bullet, so refereeing a bout seems impossible. Each referee calls on the others to assist one another in making the correct calls during the impromptu bouts.

Even though the students’ bouts are impressive, the highlight of the class is Wright’s one-on-one interaction with them. As a student’s and Wright’s foils clash together in combat, also called a “conversation,” it is as if Wright knows exactly where the student is going to strike. He stops the bout and takes the tip of the student’s foil, points it to his chest and thrusts it into his dark black uniform, telling the student to hit him there. The conversation between the swords continues again as the student tries to hit the spot – succeeding only when Wright lets him. With his eyes half closed, Wright retreats, fending off thrusts from the foil, and then lunges forward for a halfhearted attack that catches the student off guard. Wright casually looks around the room and observes his other students as they fence each other, all the while still defending strikes from the student he is fencing with. After a one-on-one session, Wright gives tips to the student and calls the next over, only to repeat the process again.

DeAndre Cruse, a newcomer, says he enjoyed the class. He spent much of his time with Jacobs, Wright’s assistant, who taught Cruse the proper way to hold his foil, the form he needed to use when making lunges and other requirements. Cruse’s mother, Jerri Williams, says she enjoys watching it.

“And I think he enjoyed doing it,” Williams says.

She also says the workout and the discipline her son was going to receive were an added bonus.

Wright moved from New York to Cincinnati nearly 15 years to teach fencing. He says he still enjoys it, even after teaching thousands of students in his 35-year career.

“I want to make champions,” Wright says. “I just want to make champions.”