Elegant sword game – A new generation of young fencers winning international tournaments

4 December 2015

Fencing, the elegant sword-wielding sport, is relatively new in Macao. As little as two decades ago, it was only played by a handful of interested amateurs. In 1997 the Macau Fencing Association (MFA) was formed, to promote the game among youngsters and to help them participate in competitions worldwide.

The efforts paid off, as evident in the prizes Macao has won in recent years. Jacqueline Chek Soi Lin was among the first to receive formal fencing training in Macao. She won the eighth place (in the individual foil category) and the seventh position (in the team foil category) in the two Asian Games of 2002 in Busan (South Korea) and 2006 in Doha (Quatar) respectively. Foil fencing, which uses a lighter weapon, is the category in which Macao athletes usually do well.

As the champion queen moved from front-line competitions to become president of MFA, a new generation of athletes emerged, doing equally well. At the Asian Junior and Cadet Championships in the Philippines in 2010, Macao won the fifth place in one category.

The Three Gold Flowers, as local media call fencers Ho Peng I (Ice Ho), Ho Ka U (Hannah Ho) and Huang Li Ya, came sixth at the 2014 Asian Games team foil competition in Incheon (South Korea).  In 2015, the trio was eighth at the Asian Fencing Championships in Singapore. “We could do better and make it to fourth,” said Ice Ho.

These are no easy fights for Macao’s athletes who either work or study during the day.  In the many overseas competitions they participate in each year, they face world-class top players who are full-time fencers.

Hardworking athletes

Zhang Jianzhong, a coach from Guangzhou, said that Macao’s fencing students are hardworking and determined. They know that their competitors are strong; without sufficient practice, they cannot compete effectively. Determination, inner strength, speed and endurance are the essential qualities an athlete must have. They practise four times a week, every week. In theory, each session is a two-hour class, but they often extend it to up to three and a half hours.

Jack Long, a veteran fencing athlete in China and now a member of the Macao team and a coach, said, “Fencing is a relatively young sport in Macao, but we have a lot of support from the government. Our athletes are getting better; they are willing to practise long hours, no matter how tough the training is.”

To stimulate the interest of both veterans and newcomers, the MFA has a round-the-year calendar of fencing competitions, for all levels and ages.

One important local event to encourage young fencers is the intra-school tournament, which has attracted about 150 students annually in the last three years.  “The number has stabilised nicely.  The participants are aged ten upwards,” said Chek.

Zhang said, “This year we have taken more students (for training) than in previous years, with most in the age group of 12 to 18 years old. Fencing is becoming better recognised in Macao.”

Zhang was a fencing athlete from 1984 to 1994 and later a coach of the Guangdong Provincial Fencing Team. This year, he was invited to coach Macao’s fencers, an offer he readily accepted.

Support of parents

More parents are encouraging their children to pursue fencing, another factor boosting the sport’s popularity.

As Long explained: “In the past, parents thought that the game was only for the well-off, concerned that the gear and clothing required were expensive. Today, these items have become more affordable. In fact, the fencing association can provide them for free to the athletes.”

“Many parents have told me that they like their kids to practise fencing. It has helped children to focus, observe and think; their studies have improved. Just look at how many parents drove their kids to the junior and cadet competition today,” he said, referring to an event held one Sunday afternoon in Taipa.

“Fencing is not a dangerous sport,” continued Long, who himself won many top prizes in China between 1986 and 1994. “There’s no punching of opponents, just mere light touching with the sword. Fencing helps both men and women to build stamina and a good physique. Its quick and smart movements attract young people. It also help them to develop team spirit and prepare them to integrate better in society after school.”

Chek’s career path – from champion, international referee to executive head of MFA – underscores how the once-exclusive game has become a popular activity.

Chek, an active girl who was keen to learn the quiet activity of painting as much as sporty martial arts, first learned about fencing in the summer of 1998, when she was 18. “I wanted to learn Kendo (a ritualised sword game originating in Japan), but there were no classes available. I took up fencing thinking I would swtich back to kendo later,” she said.

A coach spotted her potential and encouraged her to continue with fencing. Since then, Chek has not looked back, being the first in the local women’s foil game for the five consecutive years of 2001-2005.

Of fencing’s three kinds of combat weapons, the foil, with a maximum weight of 500 grams, targets the torso, neck and groin of the opponent, but not the arms or legs. The sabre, also of maximum 500 grams in weight, targets the entire body above the waist. The epee is the heaviest, with a maximum weight of 770 grams, and aims at the entire body.

In 2008, Chek was one of Olympic torchbearers – marking another high point in her career and making her think about her future commitments. “I said to myself, I had had the honour to be a torch bearer and had also participated in two Asian Games. I was a top foil player in Macao, but it was time to make way for younger athletes.”

From athlete to referee

In 2009, still at the top of her athletic form, Chek decided to quit competitions and concentrated on her work as referee and an executive of MFA. She was an international referee in major competitions, such as the Asian Fencing Championships in Shanghai in 2012 and the Asian Games in South Korea, experiences she described as “unforgettable”. “It was a great moment for me to hear the words “Macao, China” (when I was introduced as a referee) in the final rounds of such important events.”

In 2013, and again in 2015, Chek was elected as president of the MFA.

The MFA is a member of the International Fencing Federation, Fencing Federation of Asia and a member of Macao’s Olympics Committee under China. It offers free training courses to athletes, students, coaches and referees.

It also arranges for athletes to take part in international events, such as the Asian Fencing Championships, the Asian Games and national tournaments in Mainland China. “These competitions have broadened our athletes’ international perspectiveand help them gain valuable experience,” said Chek.

In Chek’s second term as head of MFA, she wishes to achieve three tasks. First is to make deeper inroads into schools, aiming to offer fencing classes to more students.

Second is to have a full-sized fencing academy. At the moment, MFA has its classes in various places, with no permanent venue. Third is to develop a proper junior and cadet team.

Better facilities needed

Fencing athletes will definitely benefit from a bigger and better-furnished space for their practice. On a hot Saturday afternoon, several were practising inside a spartan industrial building far away from the glittering casinos and hotels.

Sweating with a heavy mask on, Ice Ho maneouvres with agility in a single, narrow lane.

Ho, 20, started fencing at the tender age of 13, in a summer class. “All other sports classes were full. I ended up in a fencing class, with little idea of what it was about,” she said.  “It was not an easy game, not like badminton or basketball, which we were familiar with.”

Ho started with epee fencing, which required more strength and was demanding for someone with a small stature like hers. Two years later, a new coach advised her to switch to foil fencing, which stresses dexterity. It was an appropriate change for Ho, who said she was a fast-playing athlete and was used to speed as a running champion at school.

In 2011, Ice Ho competed as a single foil fencer at the Asian Junior and Cadet Fencing Championships in Bangkok, Thailand, having practised foil fencing intensively for only a few months. “On the first day, I was scared and was hit by an opponent. The next day, I recovered and got into the finals. I didn’t win anything at the end, but it was valuable experience for me, my first exposure to an international contest.

In facing strong competitors, Ice Ho learned more about herself. “I have a tendency to make my moves too soon, exposing myself to an opponent who will manipulate such weaknesses.”

The Three Golden Flowers

In Macao, she was the top female foil player in 2012. In overseas matches, her results took off when she joined two other female athletes, Hannah Ho and Huang to play as a team. In a 2012 Indonesia match, the first time they played as a team overseas, “we encouraged each other and tried to boost each other’s confidence. We did well at the end, securing the eighth position,” she said.

Hannah Ho too remembered the 2012 match well. “It was a major breakthrough for us.” Just a year earlier, she suffered a big defeat at her first overseas match, in Nanchang, China. “My legs were shaking beyond control. I was so nervous that I could not even button up my jacket properly. The judges got impatient watching my clumsiness,” she said.

Henry Leong, 25, secretary general of MFA, also underwent the same baptism of fire when he competed overseas after a mere year of training. It was an international championship for young fencers in 2005 in South Korea. “I was very nervous. The standards were much higher than in Macao.” It was good experience for him, even though he did not make it to the finals.

Leong’s most unforgettable tour-nament was the 2014 Asian Games held in Incheon. His opponent was a silver medallist at the London Olympics. “I beat him in one session. I was performing better than usual,” he recalled.

Leong said winning a fencing match depends on many variables. “With sports like swimming, you are competing against your own limits. With fencing, you need to analyse your opponent and the overall situation. You need to react quickly on the spot and to restrain your emotions at the same time.”

Leong, no longer an athlete, said the benefits of fencing went beyond physical ones. “I used to love to play often and pursued many different interests. I was not good at managing time and had no sense of priorities. As a fencer, I learned the importance of discipline and clear thinking. In my job now, when I encounter difficulties, I will try different ways to make improvements, just like I did with fencing.”

Young and dedicated

Romano Maximo Do Rosario, 16, started fencing a year ago. Thanks to the encouragement of his coach, he has increased his training to two hours in the evening on most weekdays and a gruelling six hours on Saturdays. With such a heavy training schedule, he has to sacrifice personal time and often works late into the night to catch up with schoolwork. Still, the young fencer remains undeterred, “I really enjoy fencing. I’m good at it. I like it. It’s definitely worth my time.” He has played other sports, such as basketball, tennis, hockey, skating and soccer, but he likes fencing better because it’s more hands-on and interactive. With his long arms and heavy build, he certainly has a physical advantage.

Do Rosario speaks well of his coach, who has encouraged him to think positively, be strong and not to give up easily. In two years’ time, he will be going to university, but hopes to participate in competitions on graduation.

Leong Cheng Wai also started fencing young, at 15. When friends asked him to join a summer fencing programme, he did not expect it to become a long-term commitment. He has won easily in local matches, but found opponents overseas very competitive.

Now aged 19, he practises for three hours a day, four days a week. Early in his training, he lost a competition, motivating him to train really hard. He now competes six to seven times a year. He has taken part in tournaments in Thailand, Malaysia , China and South Korea.

Leong has much admiration for his first coach whom he describes as harsh. “He pushed us to improve our skills. It was a good thing. Fencing is a game that involves spontaneous power, speed, strength and techniques. I find it exciting, a great challenge for me.” He hopes to continue fencing for many years.

Veteran Fencer

Among Macao’s male fencers, one athlete stands out, Jack Long Jie. At 44, he is the oldest of the team. Born in Guangzhou, Long had had an outstanding fencing career for a decade in China. He quit in 1995 to start a business. In 2009, he moved to Macao as an investor immigrant. Soon, the veteran fencer got itchy and looked for opportunity to pick the sword up again. “I was living in Taipa and noticed the Olympics Sport Centre. I thought it would be nice to be able to do sports in that stadium.” Soon, he was practicing again and took part in his first comtest fencing in Macao, the Open Competition and won the first prize.

“It was slightly embarrassing. I was even older than the coaches. ”Still, he soon joined other players for regular training and represented Macao in international competitions. In April 2012, the first time he competed as a player from Macao, he made it to the finals in the epee category at the Asian Fencing Championships in Wakayama, Japan. In January 2015, he won first place as an individual epee player at the National Fencing Club League in Suzhou.

Long has made a strong comeback but aware of his physical limitations, he plans to concentrate on training the young in future.

Long’s earlier career in fencing was mixed with glory and frustration, a story that inspires up-and-coming players in Macao. Born to athlete parents, Long was pushed to do more sports from a young age.  At 15, he had his first taste of fencing. “It was new to me and I thought it was less vigorous than other sports,” he recalled. Only one month after formal training, Long won first prize in a contest for junior players in Guangdong. “I won because of my speed; the local media wrote much about my victory then. My coach said I had potential and urged me to join the prestigious sport-training academy in Ersha island of Guangzhou. It was a dilemma: I was doing well at school and quitting at such a young age was a major life decision. The academy had its attractions though: it had well-furnished dormitories complete with electric fans for the hot summers of southern China – a luxury for a young person like me then.”

Height limit

Long was evidently a natural in fencing, but he had an disadvantage: his height. At 1.72 metre, he was considered to be “short”, compared to other fencing athletes of 1.8 – 1.9 metres. “My coach tried to help me grow taller quickly, using various devices to pull my legs longer. I managed to grow slightly, to 1.75 metres.”

Long failed to enter the academy, but continued to win in national competitions. In 1986, he came first in a national junior fencing competition in Xian. In 1987, he was first again, at a national competition for players from central and southern China.

In light of Long’s achievements, the sport academy eventually offered a chance to prove he was good enough for it. “My new coach there said I had to prove myself and the only way to do so was to win competitions. Subsequently, I did well in the junior section of a national tournament, but not so in the adult category. The older athletes were much bigger and taller. There were few words of encouragement and I was frustrated.”

In May 1990, there was a national competition for adult fencers in Yangzhou. “I knew it was my last chance, if I wanted to join the academy.” There were 200 participants. Long fought hard and came out sixth in the epee category – the best result for Guangdong in a decade for that event.

Long’s impressive results finally got him a place at the academy. In late 1990, he got an offer to join the prestigious national team to prepare for the Olympics at Barcelona in 1992, but he decided to stay with the Guangdong team for loyalty reasons.

In March 1995, Long won the gold medal in a national fencing competition held in Guangzhou–his last major tournament before quitting the sport later that year. After a decade of training and competitions, Long was ready to move on.

Long said his experience has showed that the smaller statute of southern Chinese is not a handicap to winning. “We are more flexible; fencing is not just about being bigger and taller. It’s a sport about courage and intelligence.” (Macao Magazine, by Louise do Rosário in Macao, photos by António Sanmarful and courtesy of Macau Fencing Association)