Obscure Sport's Tradition Endures in Long Beach : 49er Fencers Respond to Pride, Coach

Times Staff Writer

Few came to see them brandish their swords in the way that splattered blood centuries ago when fencing was not a sport but a life or death business.

But the "William Tell" Overture revved them up, as did their coach, an energetic woman with short red hair whose love for them seemed to burst from her slight frame, and they charged onto the gym floor and upheld the proud fencing tradition of Cal State Long Beach.

The 49ers defeated UC San Diego and Cal State Fullerton last Saturday to finish in first place in all three weapons--epee, foil and saber--in the seven-team Intercollegiate Fencing Conference of Southern California. The women's team also finished first in foil.

"We have one of the most successful programs here, but no one knows about us," said Jo Redmon, who has been coaching 49er fencers for 21 years, winning 80% of her matches.

Indeed, no one seems to know too much about this somewhat obscure sport, although there is always the vague notion by those weaned on pirate movies, Errol Flynn and Zorro that it is dangerous.

Curious About Danger

"Have you ever been stabbed?" is a question Mark Calkins, the team's top foilist, is often asked.

But there is no danger that the traditional white uniforms will turn crimson. The points of the weapons are blunt and the blades are dull.

About 60 people showed up Saturday to quietly watch the bouts, which were contested beneath colorful car-lot streamers. There were no cheerleaders, so the 49er fencers generated their own enthusiasm with high fives, something unheard of in the days of the Three Musketeers.

And Redmon showered them with kisses.

Keith Williams, a senior epeeist, led the 49ers into battle. He was tall and lean and thrust his blade with his left hand.

Williams was a basketball player at Los Angeles High School. He was introduced to fencing at CSULB when he was a freshman by his roommate, Mark Pohl, the conference's top epeeist.

"It came kind of easy to me," Williams said. "If you have good athletic ability, you can be a decent fencer."

In epee (dueling sword) and foil (light, flexible blade), the fencers feinted and jabbed like boxers. Wires were attached

to the back of their shirts so that when their bodies (torso in foil, anywhere in epee) were touched by the sword a light went on at the scoring table. If a fencer got touched five times, he lost.

When Bill Robertson, the most exuberant 49er, defeated his opponent in an epee bout after much scraping of steel, he yelled, tore off his ominous wire-mesh mask and stomped the floor.

"It's like a frenzy," said Robertson.

Redmon appreciated Robertson's enthusiasm.

"A lot of them have not had athletic experience," she said. "They've found something that makes them part of the university. They're not meat on the hoof. They're doing this for themselves, the team and the school, not for a pro contract."

Redmon gets many of her fencers from the fencing classes she teaches. Since few high schools have fencing, rare is the student who comes with experience.

Calkins, a senior whose foil record is 32-4, is an exception.

"I liked pirate movies and was always breaking my sister's umbrella playing swords," he said. When Calkins was 12, he saw real swords in an equipment room while attending a 49er sports camp, and took up the sport.

"It's a great exercise and it uses the mind as well as the body," he said. "There is a lot of strategy."

Calkins fenced as a freshman then laid off the sport for two years. "I was burned out," he said. "I couldn't relax during competition."

Blow to Self-Esteem

Fencers take to the "strip," the 40- by 6-foot area in which the bouts are fought, with apprehension.

Defeat doesn't result in death like it did in the old days, but it still can be a mortal blow to self-esteem.

"It is incredibly tense right before you put the mask on," said Gary West, a senior saberist with a 31-5 record. "After that, everything has to be instinct. You can't think."

There wasn't time. In saber, a blade heavier than a foil used for "cutting" as well as thrusting, fencers ran at each other, slashing with such quickness that it was hard for spectators or even the judges to determine when touches were made. Because it is the only weapon not judged electrically, the saber-wielding fencers were not encumbered by wires.

Tarek Yassir (32-1), who came to Long Beach from England, was the quickest of the saber fencers. He was as elusive to his coach as he was to his opponents.

"He can be so sweet, then he's gone," said Redmon. Between victories, Yassir disappeared into the stands to kiss his girlfriend.

Yassir has dueled the world's best fencers in Hungary and hopes to compete in the 1988 Olympics.

"I'm not her ideal of what a teammate should be," said Yassir, who wore a red warm-up jacket while his teammates wore gold.

He was kicked out of a bout this season for arguing with the judge.

"I wish I was the swimming coach, and all I had to do was drape a towel around my neck," Redmon said, expressing her frustration as she looked at all the gear strewn around the gym: weapons, electronic machines, protective padding. Four bouts were going on at the same time.

"It's confusing, it's like a three-ring circus," she said. "It's probably why it's not the spectator sport we'd like it to be."

Redmon, a national class fencer in the mid-'60s, said she tires of all the instructing, the paper work and the hassle of lining up officials, especially when the feeling that she and the team are unwanted starts to gnaw at her.

'I Raise a Lot of Hell'

"They (the athletic department) would love to get rid of me," she said. "Just another sport taking up room in the gym. But I raise a lot of hell, so I guess as long as I'm here we'll have a fencing team."

On the floor, Mark Morey had gone from fencing class student to varsity hero. In the deciding bout, he clinched the foil title for the 49ers. His teammates, including Yassir, hugged him.

Calkins grabbed Redmon and swung her around.

Afterward, Redmon sat and reflected.

"I'll fight for these kids," she said. "They're just neat people, and they make it all worthwhile."

Williams, the captain, walked by, his T-shirt soaked.

"Love you, coach," he said.

"Love you too."

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