Opinionated cheat sheet to national fencing events

As I have mentioned before, I started fencing nationally (and even earning medals) soon after I started learning to fence. This sounds impressive. I wish it was.

A bunch of national fencing medals piled up on a windowsill. Some are pentagons, some are disks.
My pile of national medals. To my embarrassment, I don’t remember how I got most of them.

USA Fencing, a nonprofit that operates on a tight budget, gets its money from a few buckets: the US Olympic Committee, membership fees, the occasional donation, and tournament registration fees.

Most of the membership really wants to compete in national events. Parents want their kids to have national experience on their college applications, coaches want their students to get stronger competition, the USOC wants to bring strong fencers up the pipeline, and everyone else just wants to be there. So USA Fencing offers a national tournament of some sort at least once a month, most of the year, plus Summer National Championships (and, in Olympic years, a separate Division I National Championships).

USA Fencing has tournaments for all kinds of competitors – young, old, skilled, less skilled, and paralympic. If you qualify by reason of age, sex, or level, and want to pay for travel, hotel, and competition fees, you can be a national competitor. You can get your jacket back stenciled with your name, as required, and look badass at practice.

National events have to be held in places with a large enough convention center, low enough hotel fees, and free dates in their calendars, so I have been to such hot spots as Rockford, Illinois, Ontario, California, Reno, Nevada, and Louisville, Kentucky.

Below are the types of national events I competed in:

Division I

Division I is the elite event. To enter, you have to have an A, B, or C classification, and depending on how high you finish, you can earn national points and, in Olympic years, Olympic qualifying points. Most people who are serious contenders for the Olympics actually go abroad to World Cups instead, but Division I is intense. You qualify for Division I Championships by national points, so I went a couple of times. You see, for a while I was eleventh on the national points list because the rules favored people like me who showed up all the time. They changed those rules eventually.

One year, in Reno, the Division I was a two-day event and the organizers gave everyone in the top 16 of the national point standings a bye into the second day. I didn’t know about that when I made my plane reservations, so I ended up not fencing on the first day because I was the 8th-highest seed present, then losing my first bout and going out on the second day because I actually wasn’t very good. So I flew to Reno and back, grading papers frantically on the plane, to fence one bout.

I once finished 7th in Division I in Rockford, Illinois, and got a medal, because they give them out to eighth place.

Division I-A

Division I-A is a consolation prize championships. High-rated fencers who can’t fence Division III or II because their ratings are too high, can fence it, but it’s also very similar to Division II otherwise. You have to qualify for it in a tournament at the division level, which means the I-A is weirdly varied in quality because some of the divisions in the US are scarily competitive, while others, isolated but persistent, scramble to get enough people to hold the qualifier and send whoever shows up.

It was the only event I could fence for a long time (besides veterans) because I had a B and then an A. I finished third in the I-A once, and will write about that at another time.

Division II

The Division II is probably the strongest event after the Division I. You can’t be rated B or C, but coaches like their teenagers to compete because the competition is decent, and you can earn a B if you finish in the top four. I have never won the Division II, but I finished second in 1998.

In that event, my young opponent was from a very strong club, and her clubmates packed the stands during the gold medal bout, cheering loudly for her. I had one spectator, who was fencing in another event while I was competing, and who yelled, “Go Mommy!” from behind the scoring table before running back to their own competition. I cherish that memory more than I value the B rating I earned.

Division III

Division III is a frustrating circus. You can’t have an A, B, or C rating to compete, so I couldn’t do it after 1998, though I medaled in it before then. Division III was where you encounter cheerful, well-trained beginners plus a sprinkling of experienced fencers who aren’t rated too high and who want an extra event. It would be great if those were the only entrants.

However, you also get a lot of relative novices, plus an assortment of people who have invented their own version of fencing, and who hit hard and don’t know the rules. It is hard to fence someone who doesn’t know what they are doing, because you don’t know what they are doing either.

To illustrate: I once watched the gold medal match in the men’s Division III sabre. One competitor was wearing barefoot shoes, which have no heel cushioning. In the fencing lunge, the front foot lands hard on the heel, and some fencers even wear heel cups to keep from hurting themselves. He solved the heel problem by never lunging. Instead, he sort of fell over on his opponent, at close distance and at high speed. It was very ugly.

I have a few Division III medals. I don’t remember how I got them. I’m sorry.

The national organization stopped hosting Division III events a little while back, not because they thought people should learn to fence before they compete nationally, but because the other national events were just too successful and getting too big.


I qualified for the veteran category the day I started fencing, because I was over 40. It’s called “veteran,” instead of “masters” as in other sports, because in fencing, a master (or maestro) is a high-level fencing coach with a master’s degree or equivalent.

USA Fencing doesn’t get any money from the USOC for encouraging veteran events, but there is a Veteran World Championships run by the international fencing organization (the FIE) and boy does USA Fencing love earning international world medals.

When I started out, women’s veteran sabre was not part of the Veteran World Championships, though, so our national tournaments were just a vague wave in the direction of equity. We earned national points that didn’t serve to qualify us for anything, though we fought hard for those points. In those early years, my goal was always to win my veteran event and to be at the top of the national points, but there wasn’t much point to it. I won sometimes, and sometimes I didn’t. But I was at the top of the point standings consistently.

In 2002, in Tampa, Florida, the FIE grudgingly put on a first demonstration women’s sabre event at Veteran World Championships. Though we didn’t get to compete officially until 2005, we knew we were going to be official at some point soon. Our national points would finally matter. We would have a real world championships, an official one. At that point, my whole attitude toward fencing changed. I had a new purpose. It wasn’t just about participation any more. My goal was now to win an official World Championships. After that year, none of the other national events mattered, which was good, because I was getting too old to do the I-A or the I, and I didn’t qualify for the Division III or II until my rating aged out – when I was in my 70s.

I will write about Veteran Worlds at some other point.

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