By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
In épée, the most duel-like of the three events that make up fencing, the foot touch serves two purposes. The first, of course, is that it counts as a score. Unlike foil, in which a combatant must contact an opponent's torso with his blade to score, or saber, for which the blade must land above your adversary's hips in order to tally a point, in épée, the entire body is considered a target -- just as in an actual blood duel.
The second purpose of the foot touch, however, is more subtle. It is to get inside your enemy's head, to punch a hole in his mental reservoir and drain him dry. For starters, the front foot -- small and always moving -- is a hard target. In order to score this way, the fencer must take a great chance: He must drop his épée and arm down below his waist. If done poorly, the motion can leave him wide open to a riposte, or counterattack.
The foot touch is thus a risky move and is only attempted out of a sense of recklessness or great superiority. A fencer who tries and succeeds is, in effect, saying, "I can have my way with you; you are defenseless against me."
At the recent United States Fencing Association North American Cup Tournament, Gary Copeland, founder and head coach of the Boulder-based Northern Colorado Fencers, was running back and forth between his students' matches. The vast floor space of the Pavilion Building at the Denver Merchandise Mart was striped with about two dozen of the large, Band-Aid-shaped mats that mark the combat area for each match. Another section of the building was set up as a common area where vendors hawked equipment and souvenirs. But combatants also had taken to using it as a warm-up space, dancing back and forth in haphazard pairings. Nearly everyone had to walk through the space to get to the competition mats, so by the time the tournament had entered its third day, more than one civilian had been whacked with some type of blade.
In the far northeast corner of the building, Copeland's star pupil, Jasmine McGlade, was just beginning a crucial match. It shouldn't have mattered as much as it did, for the fifteen-year-old McGlade is one of the top young fencers in the country. Blond and wholesomely attractive, she has dominated épée competitions across the country this year, not only in her age group, but also in contests against older women.
Yet here she'd performed poorly in the round-robin contest that makes up the first half of USFA tournaments. That gave her a low seeding in the double-elimination portion of the event that followed, which meant she would be facing top opponents much earlier than usual. Expected to win, or at least place easily, McGlade now found herself in the unfamiliar position of fighting for her life.
A recent rule change by the USFA permits coaches to offer instruction and encouragement during bouts, so Copeland, who is 47 years old, stationed himself at one end of the mat, a couple feet away from his student. Earlier, McGlade had prepared for the fight by lying flat on her back and listening to music on a portable CD player. Much of fencing is mental, and Copeland advises his students to seek a familiar place in times of stress, a psychological kitchen table. McGlade follows his advice by disappearing into her own routine -- spinning a familiar playlist before every match. Today she listened to the soundtrack from West Side Story while visualizing her upcoming match.
Copeland prepared for this match long ago. He is a fastidious coach, an incessant and meticulous observer of the sport. Fencing has more than its share of gurus, but unlike most of them, who approach the sport with a fast and single idea of what is takes to win a bout, Copeland is more adaptable. "He's always looking for new ways, not just relying on what worked last season," says Andrea Lagan, a former New Zealand national champion, Copeland's wife, and another coach for the Northern Colorado Fencers.
Constantly writing, Copeland records what he sees and feels in pocket-sized notebooks held shut by elastic bands. Most of his prose is stream-of-consciousness, without topic breaks or even paragraph indentations. The compulsive chronicling keeps him on top of his coaching; because he attends dozens of tournaments every year, the notebooks provide him with an up-to-date dossier on most fencers in the country.
Yet the scribblings aren't only for the benefit of his students. They also serve as private journals. Copeland has never been anything but a fencing coach, and the sport dominates his life to the extent that he can seem limited, even personally compromised. "When we go out to dinner, we talk about fencing," says Lagan. "All of our friends are fencers. I used to do other things, but Gary has beaten it out of me."
"He doesn't go to the movies," adds Bonnie Rush, whose daughter, Ally, is one of Copeland's top students. "It's all fencing."
In addition to scouting reports, the notebooks double as records of Copeland's mental state at a particular moment and much needed ballast for his psychic balance. Such a focused life doesn't leave a lot of room for expression, and in a nearly three-decade career as a fencing coach, Copeland has filled dozens of the notebooks.