A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
Dec 6, 2007 Volume 38 / Number 3


Physical Chess:

Engaging the Mind and Body with Fencing

Mahan Mirza

At the age of 48, I experienced a conflagration of events: I recognized that my weight had reached life-threatening proportions, and at the same time, my oldest daughter decided she wanted to wield a sword. After she discovered a newly opened salle (the term for a fencing club) and I started driving her to fencing three times a week, I thought, “what the heck?” and joined in.

Immediately I realized something special about this sport —while fencing, one does not notice the passage of time or the pain of exercise. How could this be? That was when I heard that fencing is called “physical chess” because fencing engages the mind in real-time strategic planning. There is something about someone running at you with a sword, even if it is a game, that ignites the synapses and churns out the adrenaline.

The first year was difficult. Fencing is like learning how to dance a tango and type at the same time. I use this analogy because the blade work—the actual holding and using the sword—uses fine motor skills, while the body is moving vigorously up and down a playing field called a piste, or strip.

After 18 months I had reached my weight-loss goal, plus my daughter and I had discovered the joys of competition. We traveled to a number of national tournaments; she competing in the Junior Olympics and I in the Veteran events. Although in local events all ages (over 13) and all genders typically fence together, once you are in regional or national competitions, events are broken up into age, gender, and level.

I enjoyed competing and found that for some strange reason a short, old, possibly sneaky person could do quite well in this strategic sport. By the third year of competition, I finished fourth overall in three national qualifying events and made the four-person Veteran women’s foil team. My youngest daughter, who was fencing as well by this time, traveled with me to France to support me as I represented the United States in the Veteran World Championships, finishing 10th.

As a new faculty member in the College of Business last spring, my priorities shifted, and so I have not competed this past year. However, I must say that I see a lot of similarities between fencing and teaching a class of marketing students.

The good news is that fencing is a “life sport.” You can learn to fence at any stage of life, and then it is yours forever. My goal is to start competing again soon, make the World Championships—and this time to bring a medal home for the United States.

Kathryn Schifferle, Finance and Marketing