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.
Despite McGlade's poor performance so far -- and thus her shaky mental state -- Copeland concludes that if McGlade snaps out of her funk, the bout ought to be a breeze. "We should pound this girl into a stain," he says as he settles into a cross-legged sit. "Jasmine should win 15-4."
"You're bouncing too hard. Push her, small steps," he directs as the match begins. McGlade scores quickly on a touch to the other girl's chest. "Better," Copeland says.
A few seconds later McGlade scores again. "Okay," Copeland nods. Then, "Get your hand up, for chrissakes." She scores a third consecutive point a few seconds later, a delicate tap on the shoulder.
Yet McGlade suddenly seems tentative, and she loses two points in a row. The girls spend the next minute pursuing each other back and forth along the mat, neither establishing herself as the aggressor. There are no sophisticated combination attacks, only cautious, single thrusts. The formless style infuriates Copeland.
"This is fencing I hate," he growls. "Without a theme. It's just two fencers bouncing around looking for a touch. Without a theme, this is just a silly game.
"Our job now," he explains, "is to psychologically crush this girl -- make her feel like she can't step forward without getting attacked. It should be like watching a trash compactor. We should make her crumble."
"Hey, Jasmine," he calls. "I want a foot touch. Win or lose, I want a foot touch."
"If she can do this," he adds, "even if she loses a couple points, it'll help her confidence for the rest of the tournament."
In the entryway to the Merchandise Mart, the tournament's organizers have set up an L-shaped registration table. Spread out along one side is a selection of informational pamphlets. One, A Spectator's Guide, published by the USFA, speaks to the sport's obscurity. Other publications -- recruitment brochures from Stanford, the Air Force Academy and other upscale institutions -- reflect fencing's demographics. With precious few exceptions, most of the young adults competing this weekend are white, financially well-off (a basic just-what-you-need-to-get-started package of fencing equipment will run you more than $400, and don't even ask about travel expenses) and college-bound.
Jasmine McGlade fits the profile easily. Tired of team sports, several years ago she and her younger sister began casting around for a new activity. After settling on fencing, she called the USFA, who directed her to a local club. That didn't work out, so the McGlades began making the one-hour trip from Ken Caryl to Boulder and Copeland's Northern Colorado Fencing. "It's the best youth program in the country," Jasmine says. "Even though we have to drive so much, it's been more than worth it."
McGlade soon established herself as a superb fencer, though not because she is an expert technician; she's above average, but not superlative. Rather, she has risen to the top because, Copeland says, "mentally she's tough as hell."
"That's what sets me apart from other fencers," McGlade agrees. "I want to win so much. So much of fencing is almost subconscious, really. It all happens so fast that your technique has to be there, but you also really have to want to win."
For the past several years, McGlade has competed successfully in about a dozen major tournaments annually across the country. She began trying her blade internationally this year. A few weeks ago she traveled to Warsaw, Poland, where she came in tenth. In two weeks she'll hop another plane, this time to Germany. After that, it's California, then back to Europe for another contest in France.
"I miss a lot of school, but fencing makes my life incredible," she says. "It's what people know me for. And I love that."
In two months the McGlades will move to London, where Jasmine's father, a telecommunications executive, has taken a new job. Copeland has already scouted out fencing coaches there. "I'll still fly to Europe for international tournaments," he says. "I figure we'll see each other about once every six weeks. It'll work out."
Besides, he adds, "I always lose them. But that's okay. I only coach juniors. After that, most of them leave. They're smart, they're rich -- it's Boulder -- and college is a viable option. To leave the place where you grew up -- it's what everybody wants, right?"
It's certainly what Copeland wanted. He grew up in a household nothing like that of most of his students. "Poor white trash on the wrong side of the tracks," he says. "That's the truth of it."
His parents divorced when he was a toddler; his mother eventually remarried. But Copeland stayed with his father, an industrial washing machine salesman, in Bakersfield, California -- a place, he says, "where everyone has stopped for gas. The armpit of the world."
He tried college for a while, but it didn't stick, and he left the place feeling conflicted. Though grateful to be gone, he was uncertain what to make of himself -- a two-term non-graduate of Bakersfield Community College who couldn't even hack the local school. "I majored in getting by," he says. "Actually, failing. I went to college and promptly failed."
He had started fencing late, at eighteen, and it didn't take him long to figure out that he wasn't particularly good at that, either. "I couldn't move fast enough, couldn't think fast enough," he says. "I'm the kind of guy who will think of a witty remark twenty minutes after I should have said it." So Copeland settled down to mark some time in a default Bakersfield life, working as a night clerk at a 7-Eleven.
"I should have ended up working at a gas station," he says. "My brother still does." But then, at the age of 24, he started to coach fencing, and to his surprise, discovered he was very good at it. Soon after, he followed a friend out to Boulder. He continued teaching, privately at first, and then, as his number of students grew, in any recreation or community center that would have him.
Mondays and Wednesdays he coached students in Aurora. Tuesdays were Fort Collins, Thursdays were Boulder, and Fridays found him in Lakewood. Weekends took him to wherever the next tournament was. People who knew him at the time remember thinking that he lived out of his van, and they weren't too wrong.
In 1990, Northern Colorado Fencers finally found a permanent home in Boulder, where the club has stayed for the past decade. It's still a busy life, and both Lagan and Copeland are in a constant state of exhaustion. They haven't taken a non-fencing vacation for twelve years.
But Copeland has finally stopped being an imposter in the rarefied world of fencing. He is now considered one of the top coaches in the country, even in the world, having been selected to lead a half-dozen world championship and junior Olympic teams. He is the assistant director of the USFA's Coaches College, at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. So when he says, "What I like about coaching is that I can create my world -- I can create a win or a loss," he is really talking about several things.
In fencing, which frequently is conducted at a pace so rapid that it's difficult to see the action, instinct plays a big role in a successful bout. As a result, coaching the sport is as much, or more, about sensing a student's weaknesses as it is about actually spotting them.
"Whether you win or lose in fencing takes a fraction of a second," Copeland explains. "It's hard enough for a kid to make a decision in that moment. So it's my job to know my students well enough to help each one make the right decision.
"After many years, a fencing coach knows things about his students. Is she brave? Is she a coward? Is she honest or dishonest, lazy or a hard worker? And it's not always obvious. For example, kids can lie, even to themselves, about how much they want to win. But these are things that I know. My job is to get them to face their weaknesses, or, sometimes, to sneak around them -- whatever it takes.
"I know Jasmine. She's brave and she's honest. She's not lazy. But she's not very confident. I know that about her, and it's my job to help her find that confidence."
"Sometimes," McGlade says, "I start to feel that I'm just adequate. So Gary will remind me of all the things that I've already accomplished in the past and how they can't be taken away from me. He'll tell me that I'm in control and that I can do whatever I want to. Everyone has their good and bad days. But he's so intelligent about fencing, talking to him always helps."
In this match, Copeland concludes, the key will be the foot touch. McGlade hears his instruction, and she quickly tries the move. But she drops her épée too low, and the other girl ripostes easily, scoring with a deft poke to McGlade's chest.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Copeland rolls his eyes. "You don't have to swing from your head," he says. McGlade shakes her head slightly, as if to clear it.
The two girls re-engage in the center of the mat. McGlade again takes the offensive. Suddenly she lunges. As she ends her stride, she abruptly and lightly drops the tip of her épée onto her opponent's foot. The green light to her right flashes -- a point.
"Again," says Copeland as she returns to position. "Crush her."
McGlade repeats the move, scoring on another foot touch. The other girl now seems uncertain. After that, the points in McGlade's favor follow quickly, and within a couple minutes, the match draws to a close. The final score: 15-4.