University of Pittsburgh

good sport

Sword Play

From the courts of kings, a skill passes from teacher to student.

Written by Adam Reger

Amid the clatter of blades clashing, a fencer in Trees Hall crosses swords with his opponent. Lunging, he strikes the guard plate that protects his opponent’s hands, and it rings out like a bell. The domineering fencer is Will Romanias, a senior biology major, who just demonstrated the weakness of his partner’s approach. When the pair faces off again, Romanias tries to teach his partner how to avoid bell-clashing defeat.

“Feint, then come in,” Romanias directs. The other fencer, sociology sophomore Jason Billington, darts forward, blade extended, stops, then lunges forward again, tapping his opponent on the wrist. He has just scored a point on his teacher. “Good,” says Romanias.

The Pitt senior has been fencing for nearly nine years, and he is the president of the University’s Pittsburgh Fencing Association. He began fencing in high school because he was intrigued by the swordfights he read about in fantasy novels and stories of King Arthur. When he arrived at Pitt four years ago, the fencing association had five or six members. At tonight’s practice, more than 20 fencers are scattered around the room, practicing their lunges, parries, and ripostes.

It’s not too far-fetched to attribute the association’s expansion to Romanias and his attitude toward fencing. “We teach anyone,” he says, “whether they know everything or they know nothing.” He also credits the association’s Web site, and the Facebook group that he started, for sparking interest. Most of the student fencers have the same initial attraction that Romanias had. “We all love swords and fantasy tales,” he says. “These days, it’s usually anime shows and video games—a little more Japan than medieval Europe—but it all equates.”

Romanias’ specialty is the épée, one of three fencing swords—foil and sabre are the others. He is Pitt’s top épée fencer. Last fall, he placed sixth out of 110 fencers at the national North American Cup.

His success has helped him academically, too. “For those minutes when you’re crossing blades, the amount of focus you need is just about all you’ve got,” he says, explaining how the sport has taught him to improve his discipline. As a biology major, Romanias says his fencing skills also have come in handy in microbiological and virological research labs at Pitt. “Using pipettes, transferring substances, cutting with a scalpel—anything that needs a steady hand, fencing helps with.”

Back at practice, Romanias teaches Billington another tactic. The fencers wear some serious protective gear—thick padded shirts, high socks, and wire mesh helmets that veil their faces. “Feint with your left knee,” he says. “I’ll go low.” Slowly they work through the combination, the two fencers crossing blades until Billington breaks through, tapping Romanias solidly on the arm. Another score for the student. “Good,” says the teacher. They step back into position for another duel. En garde!