Reprinted with permission from Academy of Fencing Masters - It’s not uncommon for parents to think that their child has “aged out” of competitive fencing. Many parents think that if they’re child hasn’t started fencing when they’re very young, that they’ve somehow missed the boat for being major competitors in the arena of fencing. Many parents think that a child who is 14 or 15, or even 10 or 11 has already gotten to be too old to have a chance at international competition. So, what is the right age to start fencing?
Before we go on, we want to be clear – your child is not too old to start competitive fencing.
Misconceptions about the right age to start fencing
The reason for the common misconception that children are too old to have a shot at competitive fencing probably stems from other sports that do have younger competitive age ranges. For instance in competitive gymnastics most children who are serious must start before kindergarten in order to have a shot at the top echelon of the sport.
A few years ago there was a fascinating study that came out of the Institute of Biomedical Research and Sports Epidemiology in France that found the peak ages for athletes in swimming, track and field, and chess. Swimmers came out with the youngest peak – around 21. Chess players were on the other end, peaking at 31.4. The 100 meters had a mean peak age of 26.6 for women and 25.4 for men, while marathon runners peaked at age 27. Female gymnasts peak at while they’re still teenagers, with most retiring by their late teens or early 20’s. All of that leads to this idea that elite athletes must always be young, and therefore they must start young in order to have a shot at the big leagues.
Unfortunately, this kind of research hasn’t been done for fencing. But we do know is who is winning medals and we do know that fencing is more like chess than it is like gymnastics. There’s a level of maturity that this sport requires that is beyond that of many others. The mental acumen needed for fencing means that the average elite fencer is much older than the athletes in some other sports.
The Guardian UK did a fascinating piece about the 2012 Olympics, analyzing each sport by age, height, and weight. The median age for fencers, both men and women, was 26 in those games. The youngest was 14 year old women’s individual sabre competitor Lea Melissa Moutoussamy of Algeria, while the oldest was French women’s individual epee competitor Laura Flessel-Colovic at age 40, with men’s sabre fighter from Italy Luigi Tarantino close by at age 39. In fact, nearly half of the competitive fencers at the 2012 Olympics were over 30! That’s a much different picture than many other sports. Compare it to women’s gymnastics, which has a media age of 19.
Top fencers and the ages that they started
World renowned fencers commonly don’t start fencing until they’re in middle school or beyond.
Let’s check out some of the biggest fencers in the world and the ages at which they first picked up the sword. Here are a dozen big name fencers who didn’t start until they were ten years old, many of them much later! And these are just a few.
Sergei Golubitsky, Olympic silver medalist in foil in 1992 from the Ukraine (one of the biggest names in the sport), started at age 11
Ibtihaj Muhammad, U.S. Olympic sabre fencer, started at age 13
Bretta Heidemann from Germany, Individual Epee Olympic Gold Medal in 2008 and three time Olympic fencer, started at age 14
Tim Morehouse, United States Olympic sabre fencer with a silver medal in the 2008 Olympics, started at age 14
Mariel Zagunis, the first American fencer to win gold at the Olympics (in sabre) – she won gold in 2004 and 2008, began fencing at age 10.
Miles Chamley-Watson, U.S. Olympic bronze medalist in team foil in 2016, started fencing at age 10.
Peter Westbrook, bronze medalist for the United States in the 1984 Olympics, started fencing at age 15.
Erinn Smart, American silver medalist in women’s team foil in the 2008 Olympics, started fencing at age 11.
Keeth Smart, American silver medalist in men’s individual team sabre in the 2008 Olympics, started fencing at age 13.
James Williams, British sabre fencer, make it to the finals in three Olympics, he started fencing when he entered the British Army around age 18.
Susie Scanlan, American epee fencer who won bronze in the team event in the London Olympics, started fencing when she was 10.
Maya Lawrence, American epee fencer who won bronze in the team event in the London Olympics, started fencing when she was 15.
As you can see from this list, getting to the top of the game in fencing doesn’t have to involve picking up a sword at a very young age. In fact, it’s common for fencers not to start until they’re older!
Understanding the drive to start early
The problem of starting kids so early has a great deal to do with parents. They want to see immediate progress in their children – an unrealistic expectation. They often compare their kid’s skills to those of other kids their same age that are nationally ranked, and unfortunately this doesn’t give a clear picture to parents.
It takes time to progress. Kids have time, even when they start off older. Unfortunately they often lack the patience to dig in for two years to see that jump in skill. They key is not to compare your child to others, but to see them against themselves as they have gone through the process. It’s your own chart, your own graph that matters!
The truth is that for fencers, the graph of progress comes out in the wash in the end. Kids who start later might have to learn a lot, but their minds are sharper and that gives them an advantage. Kids who start off super young might be able to do some of the movements more intrinsically, but they don’t have the mental acuity until their older.
At the end of the day, whether your child starts at age 8 or age 15, what determines their ability to progress to a high level in this sport has a lot less to do with the age that they started at and a lot more to do with how well they focus and train once they are in the club.
Whatever the age of your child – they aren’t too old to start fencing!