Country Day quartet fences its way to the Junior Olympics

For four La Jolla Country Day athletes, the experience of competing in high school sports is far different than that of most of their classmates. Minus the team huddles and bleachers full of cheering fans, these athletes compete in an individual sport and in relative anonymity, but that doesn’t make them any less an athlete than their contemporaries on the football field or basketball court.

Austin Chen, William Duncan, Bijan Arab and Larissa Kenney are all members of Country Day’s fencing team, and aside from that, they are among the top high school fencers in the area.

The quartet will compete this week in a Junior Olympic event that is one of the most highly competitive events in the nation.

“This is one of the many peaks for the year,” Country Day fencing coach Vijay Prasad said. “We’ve done a lot of work to peak for this tournament. This is probably one of the biggest junior events of the year.”

This is all about who wants to be the best nationally, and it counts a lot for points and ranking nationally.

The U.S.A. Fencing Junior Olympics will be held Feb. 16-19 in Denver, Colo., featuring the best junior fencers (ages 19 and younger) and cadet fencers (ages 16 and under). The event features four days of competition in six different disciplines: men’s epee, men’s foil, men’s saber, women’s epee, women’s foil and women’s saber.

Chen will compete in the gold junior men’s foil and the gold cadet men’s foil, and Duncan is entered in the gold junior men’s epee. Arab is in the gold cadet men’s epee and the silver junior men’s epee, and Kenney is in the silver junior women’s saber and the silver cadet women’s saber.

All four advanced to the Junior Olympics by qualifying at an event held last fall.

“This is the most athletes we’ve had advance to the Junior Olympics,” Prasad said. “I think it speaks highly of our program and the effort the kids have put in to get here.”

Kenney competed at the Junior Olympics last year, when they were held in Hartford, Conn. A junior now at Country Day, she said the experience helped her, and should net even better results this season.

“Instead of not knowing what I’m up against, I kind of have a better idea, and because of that, I’m a little more confident,” Kenney said.

For those unfamiliar with fencing, epee, foil and saber are three of the weapons, or disciplines, employed in the sport.

Epee, also called freestyle fencing, rewards fencers a point, commonly called a touch, when the point of the blade touches the opponent anywhere from head to toe. Because the entire body is in target, fencers often take a defensive approach to this sword or are very careful to strategically plan their offensive attacks without risking attack.

Saber, sometimes referred to as “hack and slash,” allows fencers to score touches with the point and edge of their blade. Only the upper body is in target, a rule that is meant to give the weapon a similarity to old-fashioned horse jousting.

Unlike epee, saber lends itself to an extreme offensive approach, and a skilled tactician who employs strategic combinations can quickly defeat an opponent.

In foil, touches must be scored with the tip of the blade and only on the torso between the shoulders and the waist.

Athletes in all three weapons compete on a rectangle (termed “the strip” in fencing lingo) that measures six feet wide by 44 feet long. The first fencer to accumulate 15 points wins the duel, and duels are contested in three three-minute periods.

Country Day has offered fencing as an athletic option for a few years now, with the full support of athletic director Jeff Hutzler. It is a sport, Prasad said, that attracts athletes who might not be drawn to traditional team games. But it requires no less athleticism, hard work or dedication than what is required of softball players or swimmers.

And it has proved to be an excellent athletic outlet for people like Kenney, who quickly took to the sport after trying it. She started fencing as a freshman, and within a couple months was training three or four days a week and really enjoying it.

“I’m kind of a natural athlete, but I never really found a sport I loved,” said Kenney, whose parents are both former college-level gymnasts. “I didn’t like team sports because I never got the ball or other dumb things. I tried a lot of sports, and this was the first one where I felt like, wow, I can actually go somewhere with this, and my hard work has an obvious payoff. I could feel myself getting better the harder I worked.”

“That sort of immediate cause-and-effect relationship was really appealing to me.”