They say Europe is the birthplace of fencing, and Ahwatukee Foothills resident Rachelle Arama has her ticket punched to the continent.
Arama, a lifelong fencer, has been selected to represent the United States at the Veteran World Fencing Championships in Debrecen, Hungary.
Qualification for the world championships is based on performance at three seasonal events called North American Cups. Arama finished third in December, second in April and 14th on June 23 in the events.
She competed in the 50-59 age group of the saber category. The saber, along with the foil and épée, is one of the three forms of fencing.
The nuances between the categories are complicated to explain, Arama said, but it revolves around a rule called “right-of-way.” In épeé, if both fencers hit each other simultaneously, both receive a point. In foil and saber, the official determines which fencer initiated the exchange.
When she started fencing in 1978, women could only fence with the foil. Arama competed collegiately, learning how to fence under the tutelage of a Hungarian coach.
She fenced for Wayne State University in Michigan and captained the team to successful performances at nationals.
She got her degree in geology, became a geologist and started a family. Her fencing days seemed behind her.
When her 15-year-old son was injured playing football, she recommended that he try out fencing.
“The incidents of injury in fencing is very rare compared to other sports,” Arama said. “We take a lot of precautions to make sure no one gets hurt, and the swords aren’t sharpened, which is what everyone seems to want to know.”
They struggled to find a fencing club. Most of the organizations Arama observed didn’t teach the Eastern European style of fencing she had learned in college.
Then one of her son’s friends told her about the Arizona Fencing Center, and she found the right match.
She enrolled in a beginner’s class with her son and began working her way up role of a children’s teacher at the Fencing Center.
Florin Paunescu, Arizona Fencing Center’s owner and fencing maestro, exhorted Arama to try competition again.
A Romanian, Paunescu had competed with and coached his country’s national team countless times.
“He is a national world champion about eight times over in the saber, so he’s awesome,” Arama said.
She took his advice to heart and submitted herself to his coaching.
Training for fencing is no easy task. A typical training day for Arama consists of a 1- to 3-mile run, a two-hour class at the fencing center and core work.
More intense, however, is the mental strain, Arama said. “I’m dripping with sweat at the end, but it’s not necessarily from the physical exertion but the mental exertion,” she said.
Patience, focus, endurance and intelligence are some of the major attributes Arama tries to instill in her pupils. When she isn’t competing or training for competition, she teaches fencing classes.
Ryan Marble, 18, fences in one of her classes. One of his favorite aspects is the bond between fencers. “I think it’s the same as if you met another basketball player, but it’s slightly more special because you really don’t meet that many who fence, because it’s not as popular as the other sports out there,” he said.
Arama also founded Fencing for All, a nonprofit after-school program partnering with Arizona Fencing Center to provide fencing equipment for financially underprivileged families.
Fencing for All reaches out to the community with the Zorro Project, which takes the name of the swashbuckling literary figure.
Although Arama is rather critical of movie references to fencing, she says she accepts the depictions of Zorro and Inigo Montoya from “The Princess Bride”, especially Inigo.
“I can’t tell you how many kids quote him constantly, weekly, daily. That is one of the best fencing scenes I’ve seen,” Arama said. “That’s pretty good. It’s still movie fencing, but it’s done very well.”
Sword fighting is an old sport, going back as far as 5,000 years, according to Arama. Although dueling was banned in 17th century Europe, fencing was still taught as an important life skill.
Arama finds that the aspect of honor makes fencing special: “It’s a very gentlemanly sport, very ‘gentle-personly’ in that we salute and shake hands. There’s no trash talk or in-your-face stuff. It has a lot of dignity and honor, more closely related to martial arts, where you have to maintain your composure no matter what.”
Arama calls fencing similar to “physical chess,” only harder.
Marble calls it an “adrenaline rush.”
“I know you hear this from other people, that time slows down. It really does,” Marble said.
Arama hopes that the sport will take root in America, but she believes that more education about the sport is necessary first. Still, she sees that America has come a very long way in international competition.
“We didn’t even make it to the Olympics, let alone the medal stand,” she said of the U.S., which won its first gold medal within the last decade.
Arama will make her first international appearance with the four other members of the national team.
The Veteran World Fencing Championships is Oct. 21-26.
• James Anderson is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is interning this semester for the AFN.