Student takes stab at fencing, falls in love

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Newly-elected president of club aims to share passion for sword-fighting with others

By day, Jessica Philippus is a typical student: an English major who loves the Mexican martini specials at Trudy’s and occasionally savors a dip in the cool waters of Barton Springs. By night, she is a fencing warrior capable of going toe-to-toe with the likes of Jack Sparrow or Edmond Dantes.

The art of sword-fighting is entrenched in the roots of history and is continually revived and dramatized in modern cinema. Yet it is a sport that flies under the University’s radar. For many, witnessing a real fencing match only happens once every four years during the summer Olympics. For Philippus, president of the UT Fencing Club, the sport is an everyday affair.

Flashback to just a year and a half ago in spring 2009 when Philippus had never even picked up a sword, let alone engaged anyone in combat. She entered UT as a section leader on Big Flag and played electric bass in the Longhorn band. She never intended to one day trade electric bass for épée, the style of sword she uses to fence.

“I just got tired of the politics of band,” Philippus said. “I originally thought it [fencing] would be a nice elective to take and maybe I would have some fun, but once I got into it, I just sort of fell in love with it.”

A far cry from her days as a novice, Philippus was elected president of the group this past summer and now leads a group of about 30 fencers. Now she begins the recruitment of eager novice fencers for the fall semester.

She giggles with embarrassment when she confesses her team has bestowed upon her the nickname ‘Wonder Woman,’ earned during a previous tournament when she defeated an enormously talented, albeit pompous, male opponent from Texas State University. Even though Philippus has picked up fencing relatively quickly, she said that mastering the moves of fencing isn’t any one’s game.

“We always have students who come in and want to pick up a sword the first night,” Philippus said. “It takes a lot of technique, footwork and patience before you get there. That’s where we lose a lot of interested people. But if you don’t master the footwork, you can’t be a good fencer because when you are in an intense match, you don’t want to have to look back and try to remember the proper footwork. Practice must be permanent.”

One particular misconception that Philippus wants to clear up is the assumption that one must be an athlete in order to be a master swordsman. She sees the sport as being more of a mental game, like chess, rather than the rough and tumble of football or soccer.

“You can be the best athlete in the world, but fencing isn’t about how athletic you are because it really isn’t a physical sport,” Philippus said. “It’s not about waiting to react to a move. [Instead], it’s about making your opponent act. It’s all a mind game. You have to be able to think three steps ahead of them.”

When movies that evoke the art of fencing such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “The Count of Monte Cristo” are brought up, Philippus laughs and confesses that the pace of cinema fencing is actually quite stagnant and plays out much too long.

“I would say fencing moves 60 times faster than those movies,” Philippus said. “A fencing match is usually over in 90 seconds.”
Now that she is in her last stretch of college, Philippus is eager to graduate and “take time off from the scholastic stuff.” She hopes one day to teach English to high school students, but always wants to keep fencing as a mainstay in her life.

“I think when I graduate I might just take a roadtrip to the Rocky Mountains. I really haven’t seen much of America,” Philippus said. “I know I will end up teaching and maybe I will be able to teach fencing. That’s the best thing you can do in fencing, teaching someone one-on-one.”