BURLINGTON — Fencing is a thing.
And for Lewis Mills senior Sally Rodgers and her peers around the state — around the world — it’s a very big thing indeed.
Rodgers, the Spartans’ one-person fencing team in a varsity sport recognized by the CIAC, finished third in individual women’s sabre at the Connecticut State High School Fencing Championships at Guilford High School in early March.
A self-described “soccer kid” growing up in Huntington, Long Island, her fascination with one of the original modern Olympic sports began at a summer camp in middle school.
“The choice was between fencing or open recreation,” she says in a break in her 31/2 hour practice session at Danbury’s Candlewood Fencing Center Thursday evening. “I wanted something more disciplined.”
The word “discipline” begins to describe a girl who gave up her position as last year’s captain of Mills’ girls lacrosse team to pursue, year-round, a sport few of her classmates even knew existed.
Discipline turned her talents into a place on next year’s St. John’s University defending Division I NCAA women’s champion fencing team, coached by U.S. Olympic coach Yury Gelman.
“She’s one of the feistiest people I’ve ever met,” says Candlewood coach Marty Williams, an All-American at Sacred Heart University who finished seventh in the 2016 Olympic trials that took the top four finishers onto the U.S. team.
“She comes on quiet, but, with a sabre, she’s aggressive, fighting and scrapping for every point,” says Williams. “In my seven years as coach here, she’s one of two or three kids who have gone on to fence at Division I schools.”
The aggression traces back to her summer camp fencing origins.
“I tried all three weapons — the epee (which most people associate with fencing); the foil (an epee that records touches electronically on an opponent’s wired jacket); and the sabre (also wired for touches), the only one that allows slashing instead of just a tip,” Rodgers explains.
“I got to the sabre last and said, ‘This is my weapon,’” she beams. “Coming from soccer and lacrosse, the slashing moves were a way of getting out the aggression.”
“It’s the only weapon that matters,” Williams kids a fellow coach, presumably a master of the foil.
Nevertheless, would-be fencers — even with the slashing sabre — should erase movie scenes from their heads.
“Fencing is more and more popular (Rodgers’ Huntington middle school team had 50 members), thanks to the Olympics and TV,” said Williams, “but, when people try it, they find it’s totally different from what they expected.”
Instead of Hollywood’s long romantic duels, a real match is a series of short bursts, stopped to reset after each touch or “sabre cut” records a point. The match’s winner is typically the first to reach 15 points.
“It’s all about thinking,” says Rodgers. “I’ve heard the strategy described as ‘real life chess.’”
Rodgers’ proficiency showed up in middle school, where she started on the high school varsity team, winning tournaments for Huntington before moving to Connecticut.
Her full bloom was on display at the Guilford championships this year, where she emerged undefeated from the 6-7-person round robin phase among the tournament’s 50-75 fencers, fighting through two more single-elimination rounds before a close friend from Stamford knocked her out of the tournament.
In the process, she qualified for this July’s high school nationals in Columbus, Ohio.
But talent is one thing; discipline is another.
Credit Rodgers’ parents, Colleen and Joel, with some of the latter in Sally’s path to St. John’s.
When Rodgers started fencing, “They were pretty excited about it,” Sally says. “My Dad thought it was the coolest thing. But they said, ‘You need to work to pay for it (full equipment starts at round $1,000) and get yourself (to the tournaments).
“They come to as many tournaments as they can. The farthest I’ve driven myself is a tournament in Virginia,” says Rodgers, who’s also traveled to training sessions in France and Hungary.
Still, there were valleys.
“I took a year off after my freshman year and didn’t get really serious until this year,” says Rodgers. “The turning point was last August. I was down in the dump because I hadn’t been recruited.”
My Mom said, “Stop talking and go to more practices.”
Since then, Rodgers drives herself to Danbury three or four times a week, reached out to Gelman, who’s been the U.S. Olympic coach for 30 years, and passed his one-viewing test for membership on next year’s team of 20-30 fencers.
“I get a lot of sword fighting jokes at school, but a lot of people say, ‘That’s so cool — fencing, I never would have thought of that,’” she concludes.
Rodgers’ intended major at St. John’s is environmental sustainability and decision-making with a minor in psychology on the way to a potential career as an environmental lawyer.
Go ahead. Say it: “That’s so cool — I never would have thought of a major like that.”