TUPELO – In the past, swords were drawn in anger, and a duel was considered a legitimate way to settle a feud.
“Dueling isn’t allowed anymore,” said D.D. Ruff Nicolau, a 60-year-old Tupelo native.
But people of all ages, from children to senior citizens, engage in swordplay for sport. Nicolau fences with opponents from around the country and the world.
“Our national championships have 10 divisions. There are 4,500 participants,” Nicolau said. “The 12-year-olds can see who they’ll be fencing at 13, and they can watch future Olympic hopefuls.
“It’s so neat to me that there is a national championship that everyone can go to at the same time,” she continued. “Not many sports can accommodate that.”
In mid-July at the U.S. National Championships in Dallas, Nicolau faced down 22 women in the 60 and older division, and emerged as a gold medal winner.
“It’s like chess at high speeds,” she said. “You plan your attack and respond to your opponent. Everything moves so fast.”
The daughter of George and Dot Ruff, Nicolau first encountered fencing when she went to a summer camp as a kid. She also took lessons during physical education classes on her way to a political science degree from Vanderbilt University.
“I really got interested in fencing in the early ’80s,” she said. “There was a small club in Birmingham, where I was living at the time.”
There are three types of fencing weapons.
- With the foil, you use the blunted tip to “touch” an opponent in the arm and torso.
- With the epee, the whole body is targeted, but you still use the tip of the blade.
- With the saber, you use the tip or the edge, and the target area includes everything above the waist.
A former U.S. saber champion taught classes at the club, so Nicolau began studying the saber.
The weapon’s history makes it a natural fit for Nicolau. She’s ridden horses all her life, and the saber is a cavalry weapon.
“Fencing and riding are two Old World sports,” she said. “They originated with the cavalry. When you joined the cavalry, you learned to fence and you learned to ride.”
The saber targets everything above the waist because “you don’t want to kill the horse,” she said.
On the strip
No, she doesn’t fence from atop a horse. Bouts are fought on a strip that’s about 3.5 feet wide and 15-20 feet long.
Both competitors are connected to wires, and there’s a beep or a light whenever someone makes a touch.
“You really don’t move your shoulder much, since your shoulder is very slow when you move it,” she said. “It’s all about the wrist.”
The action is fast. Bouts can last less than a minute. The first to win a set number of bouts wins the match.
“It wouldn’t be a good spectator sport,” Nicolau said. “In the Olympics, they replay the bouts in slow motion. That’s the only way you can see all the moves.”
What about those sword fights you see in the movies and on television?
“Fencing for the movies has to be slow,” she said. “All of the moves have to be so big so people can follow what’s happening.”
Though she lives in Tupelo, she practices in Birmingham with Yuanjing Wang, a fencing master from China.
“My coach puts my bouts on DVD so I can study them,” she said. “He coaches while he videos, so you hear him telling me what to do on the videos.”
Nicolau has more to learn and more bouts to fight. She’s one of many who are putting a New World stamp on this Old World sport.
“The women’s saber fencing in America is among the best in the world. That includes Olympians and veterans,” she said. “We have a lot to be proud of.”
Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal