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Why Canadian fencing sucks big time

Posted by E on August 12, 2008


While keeping score with the Olympic games in Beijing, I hardly batted an eye as the news flashed on the official Beijing scores site: one by one, each Canadian fencer fell, pretty much after their first or second bouts. It’s a bit of a deja vu, actually, a flashback to the last Olympics – in Atlanta and Athens – when Canada managed to actually qualify more fencers to go than even this year.

And then what happened? Well, you know. What always happens.
They go home after 1 or 2 bouts.

Sorry to break it to you folks, but the sad and unfortunate reality is that Canada isn’t known for producing quality fencers, which is why the best Canadian fencers go abroad to train (look at Sherraine Schalm), and why someone like Jujie Luan, even at 50 yrs of age (an old lady to some), can qualify for a spot so easily, within 15 months. Coaching is rife with favoritism, bribes used to be common (and not just here – look at the Sports Illustrated’s infamous expose of bribery and corruption in fencing – read it here) & Canadian fencing programs here need to come a LONG way before they can be on par with the Romanians, French, Italians and Hungarians.

Even the biggest recent name in Canadian fencing, Sherraine the epeeist, who was profiled on everything from Macleans to CBC to everything else, who got a sweet book deal and on occasion has been somewhat of a media darling around here, lost in her first bout during the 2004 Athens event. She’s up tomorrow in Beijing, and as much as I’d like to see her succeed, there are no others who have tread before her. No Canadians have ever won a fencing medal. Ever.

So, Elisa, tell us, why does Canadian fencing suck?

Well, first of all, we have to put aside the popular fantasy that fencing is a sport which can be played recreationally, like volleyball or ping-pong or shooting hoops. EVERY STEP of fencing is geared toward competitions. There is no such thing, honestly, as fencing for fun; from day one, enthusiastic, wide-eyed wanna-be fencers are shoved forward onto a slaughterhouse ramp of competitive bouting. You go to amateur bouts, then to “Open” national circuits, then to international competitions. It’s what it is. Even if you want to wage your own protest and say “Hell, I’m gonna fence for fun”, your opponents will be prepping for their competitions, so it is impossible to avoid the intrinsic cut-throat nature of this sport.

But back to why it sucks big-time in this country.

The hot story this Olympics was about Jujie Luan, a former medal-winner for the Chinese waaaay back when she was still a Chinese national, having been churned out by those infamous Chinese athlete factories – you know, where they pick kids from kindergarten, assign them a sport and ship them off to athletic facilities on the other side of the country, whether the parents consent or not. Well, Jujie has been in Canada for many years now – I even got to see her some years back, fencing at the Nationals – and because of the Olympics being set in China, her homeland, she came out of self-imposed retirement. Jujie is 50 years of age, but nevertheless, within 15 months she managed to qualify for Beijing. (She was defeated in her second bout, but that’s not the point). Not to take away from Luan’s story, since training for this caliber of event is remarkable for someone her age. But fencing is NOT as physically demanding as most other Olympic sports. This is why routinely fencers up to their late 30s still qualify for Olympics. In fencing you “peak” in your mid-30s.

I think what’s more interesting is that Luan managed to qualify for a spot on the Olympic team within 15 mths. Frankly, this doesn’t say much for Canadian fencing as a whole.

When you go back to look at my former schoolmate, Sherraine Schalm, you get to see that she has actually been training in Europe for the last decade; a few years in Paris, and more recently, the last four in Hungary. Why? How could such a well-publicized Canadian athlete not actually LIVE here?

Well, other than mediocre coaches, favouritism that is so rampant – where good fencers get pushed aside by coaches who would rather sleep with their students – as it happened at my alma mater, supposedly the best varsity program for fencing in this country (where Sherraine also first came to train), where we won first place after first place in the university games for nearly a decade. The truth is, Canadian Coaches tend to play favourites, which is what the Romanians and the Chinese don’t do – for them, fencing is a business, without emotions and without bi-partisanship. If you have the spark in you, they will work it out of you. That’s their job.

Secondly, and just as importantly, government funding for “lesser-popular” sports like fencing (read: not football, soccer or hockey) is simply non-existent. Athletes are somehow expected to fund themselves, their lessons, their living expenses. Grants are few and far between, and cannot be said to even remotely cover the travel expenses of attending world championships every year.

Therefore, the pool of potential gold-medal-winning fencers has been reduced to the coach-favoured and wealthy – those whose parents and family can raise or at least scrimp together the necessary funds for them to survive as they train. You must be both to last as a competitive fencer. And if a coach doesn’t favour you, and won’t train you for free (how many do it anyway? How many retired fencer-come-coaches can afford to?) and you have to keep paying 20 bucks per lesson, how many lessons do you think you can afford? It all adds up.

Of course, to be a GOOD fencer you have to live abroad, and by the time you factor in the cost of renting a shitty apartment in a double-digit arrondissement on the outskirts of Paris, (as several people I know have done) and commuting to a gym where your teammates, via the grace of the French government, have their own personal trainers and psychologists and adorn the posters on bus shelters, you realize you’ve been pretty screwed by the country you are supposed to represent.

Now how’s that for motivation? No wonder the sport is so pathetic in this country.

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12 Responses to “Why Canadian fencing sucks big time”

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this piece, thanks for sharing.

  2. Elisa said

    Aha, you read it? Glad you liked it 🙂 I’ll try to write more pieces on fencing – only a few people know that I was pretty seriously involved in it years ago.

  3. Incorrect Fact said

    Actually I agree with some of your arguments regarding the funding for ‘lesser known sports’. But… ‘football’ does not recieve much government funding either.

  4. canadian fencer said

    Well, looks like you were right on this one. Sherraine just got eliminated and that completes the roster of eliminated Canadians for this Olympics. Why do we even bother? I mean, really?
    And as for the poster above, I’ll betcha my top dollar that football and baseball and all of those other sports *still* receive more status, attention and funding than fencing.

  5. Elisa said

    You know what? I actually feel sorry for Sherraine, and for Irene, an old fencer friend who also trained at our university in Ottawa. They both ended up moving to Paris, living on God knows what, putting everything aside for this one big dream, and what comes out of it? Poverty and a lot of dissapointment.

    I would second that “Fuck you all.” It’s the most honest, raw emotion I’ve ever heard from an athlete who has just lost a vital competition.
    It’s the same well-deserved “Fuck you all!” I told the a-hole coaches back in Ottawa. It’s a reaction that comes out of passion for what you do, from frustration for being prevented to do that which you have dedicated yourself to intensely, and has nothing to do with being polite or a good girl, having a “team mentality” or “representing Canada.”

    What has Canada ever done for its fencers? What have its fencing coaches ever done for their athletes?
    Fuck all.

  6. […] bookmarks tagged fencing Why Canadian fencing sucks big time saved by 13 others     josette54 bookmarked on 08/14/08 | […]

  7. […] Why Canadian fencing sucks big time […]

  8. fencing-coach said

    I’ve had a few negative experiences with a certain Ottawa coach myself. Its coaches like this that give the good ones a bad name!

  9. Elisa said

    Fencing Coach,

    I’d love to know what happened in your situation, and which coach it was…if it’s okay, please email me directly at subversivewriter at and we can chat about it. I’m sure there are some stories we could tell each other….

  10. Dave said

    I also think that part of the problem is that there is no CIS fencing. OUAs are a complete joke. The caliber of fencing is terrible. In the US NCAA fencing trains excellent fencers that get valuable tournament experience fencing in the collegiate system. In Canada there are very few domestic tournaments to gain good tournament experience fencing good fencers.

  11. Elisa,
    I am a fencing coach in the US and want to thank you for your blog entries. I sure did not find you by the fencing route. This morning early to my club and not wanting to repair the equipment I got on the internet and one place gave me a link to Hobotraveler which was talking about Soeul. Since I was in Korea with my student back at the Jr World Championships an merely drove though Soeul but had a good fencer that was Korean and went to stay with realitves to train and I never went along so it was interesting. Then I saw the link to you about Midnight run and thought that was interesting so read that. I was about to click off- the equipment- and saw the fencing entries on the left edge. Long story short… I and my students used to do the Canadian elite tournaments starting back when the women’s epee was in Windsor. These were perfect events for us, smallish, laid back (sort of like the US was in 1985)but really good fencing for my cadets as we could get a cadet, junior and senior event in one weekend. Loved them then a few years ago Canadian Fencing sort of restricted entries and we could not go. But “back in the day” I met Sherraine through Maurine Griffen (now in San Francisco and our six and seven year olds play at US events) and as she had just smashed one of my girls I jokingly called her Moose. A few years later she sold me a raffel ticket that was for fund raising, I ended up 2nd and with a tv that still sits in the club and other stuff. So why the long story? I am now 56 and really my best teaching is past or at least I think so when I am depressed. And really we were good, really good, not just in Canada. but i read your entry on divorcing from fencing and it is dead on accurate. When my kids quit I am happy.. they did their time ,got the results they wanted or could, then it was time to move on. but your words, the memories of Sherraine and the events in Montreal, and really the time in my life when I was good and fencing was fun in the sense that I was really achieving something.. these were good memories and i took them back with me to work on the equipment. Was I done? i don’t feel done? I feel tired. The memories reminded me why I taught. The narrowness of life, the lack of money, these things even today are not important. What I had lost perhaps was that it was work to train my kids that hard and that it was meaningful to them and me and age and tired had conspired to try less hard and then not be sucessful then doubt it even more… a downward spiral. As i fixed the equipment I began to rethink my current situation in light of the man I had been the time you reminded me. I came back to the internet and googled canadian fencing… just when was the next elite event? and there is your blog on fencing just below the canadian web page. The canadian event in november is wrong for me , I will be in Germany, but it was a thought.
    I was getting ready to leave when I thought that I should tell you what an amasing emotional boost you provided. I once trained hard because it was necessary and it was fun, were had I lost it? But as I write this I can feel now the enthusiasm that I once felt.And it is good!!!
    THANK YOU my email account to log on is really unused there is one through my website if you respond but really you have done plenty and I thank you GARY COPELAND

  12. […] another reason came to me as to why fencing sucks in this country. (By the way, read the original why fencing sucks-big-time article here). And below is the original comment, from someone named […]

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