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Fencers start season off on the right foot

No, their swords aren't lethal. No, they don't do backflips in the middle of their bouts. And no, they don't wear masks or carve Z's into their opponents.

But yes, Brown fencers do claim that they could beat Zorro. They say it with a smile, of course.

"Well Zorro seems to be completely invincible and he has real swords and a better mask," captain Nick Bender '09 said. "But I have better protection, so I think that I have the edge."

Head Coach Atilio Tass has first-hand experience fighting Zorro. Tass fought the actor who played the television version of the franchise character in a choreographed bout when Tass was the South American fencing champion in the '80s. Zorro actor Guy Williams was on a travelling tour doing shows for audiences in Argentina.

"They stopped in Buenos Aires and I was asked to do a presentation for big audiences," Tass said.

Tass "died" in the choreographed fight after Zorro sent his sword sailing out of his hands, but he was resurrected backstage and is now the head coach of Brown's fencing team.

His office is lined with trophies, and his team is off to another successful season this year. They finished first in their first tournament of the year - The Big One at Smith College - and were undefeated at the Northeast Fencing Conference No. 1.

The Bears hadn't finished a tournament with a losing record all season, until the Ivy Championships No. 1 at Columbia last weekend, where the men went 1-2 and the women went 0-4.

"The whole athletic department is really behind - to give all of the facilities," Tass said of the department hosting the NFC No. 2 at the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center.

The budget is tight for the fencing team, Tass said. They have only one full-time coach for a team of 31 fencers. Tass has one volunteer coach and another part-time assistant, who give one-on-one lessons. But with a limited budget, Tass can't hire any full-time assistants.

The program has no fencing room or facilities. They practice and compete on the OMAC floor. Yet Tass said he remains appreciative for what they do have.

"We do have more now than ever before," he said, but added, "We can get better results if I have a little bit more."

Tass, an Olympian from Argentina, said he doesn't think that an Olympic-caliber fencer would want to come to a school with such a limited fencing budget. He also said that he doesn't think anyone on the team right now has Olympic aspirations.

"If you are at Brown, you are at the Olympics of academics," Tass said. A student would have to take a year off of school in order to go through the training and qualification process, he added.

Having "Olympic goals is a full-time dedication," he said.

The team holds practices with both men and women. They practice with each other but compete separately during the meets.

Captain Deborah Gorth '09.5 said it helps "getting to fence against men (in practice), and then having to face women in competition. Men are generally faster, so it's good practice." She added that women tend to be more technical fighters, so it benefits both teams.

More than just good practice conditions have come out of the mixed-gender teams. Two couples Tass used to coach are now married.

"To be a co-ed team is very exciting," Tass said.

Most Brown fencers join the team with previous fencing experience. There are fewer than five walk-ons on the men's team, according to captain Elias Jaffa '09, himself a walk-on. Jaffa didn't start fencing until six months before he came to Brown.

"I had done track and field and cross country" in high school, Jaffa said, "so I was somewhat athletic."

But Jaffa didn't know much about fencing. His exposure to sword fighting was limited to seeing it "mostly in the movies," Jaffa said.

Jaffa's idea of the sport has since changed. "I watch a movie now and they're fencing and I'm like, I could have gotten him four or five times in the space of that action."



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