In Charlotte, fencers find their Yoda in Viveka Fox

The two opponents faced each other on the strip inside the Charlotte Central School gym, glinting blades held upright in front of their stone-still bodies.

Suddenly the fencers advanced, and the duel began.

Lunge. Parry. Riposte. Retreat. Silver blurs whipped past masked faces. The clash of their thin blades rang through the air. Amid the fray, one fighter guided her blade under her opponent’s arm and struck his gray vest just below the pit. An electronic tone sounded, and the bout was over as quickly as it began. The fencers pulled off their helmets and exchanged a high-five.

Photo by Catherine Morrissey. 
Viveka Fox, right, spars during a practice session of the Vermont Fencing Alliance in Charlotte.
Photo by Catherine Morrissey
Viveka Fox, right, spars during a practice session of the Vermont Fencing Alliance in Charlotte.

Viveka Fox, 61, had been standing off to the side, watching close. For nearly 30 years, the head coach of the Vermont Fencing Alliance has held practice here in Charlotte, teaching the sport to both hobbyists and competitors.

As an organized sport, fencing often requires pricey equipment and private lessons and attracts a fiercely competitive crowd. Like all sports, it also carries a history of sexism at the highest levels of competition. But Fox has ferreted out a way to remove these barriers in Vermont. Since 1992, she has taught fencing to students regardless of their age, gender, talent or financial ability. It costs $65 for five classes, but Fox said the group makes exceptions.

For her, fencing seems so much more than competition: It teaches focus, quick decision-making and the importance of knowing one’s opponent.

“I think our culture puts a lot of premium on being a star, and ‘who are the best of the best?’” she said. “But everyone is intrinsically an athlete for your health, for your mental, physical — it’s so good for you.”

Classes are split into groups of beginners and competitive-level fencers who learn in the same room. Fox often works on basic skills with the greener fencers while those in the competitive squad spar with each other, preparing for upcoming tourneys. They train with two of the three swords used in fencing: foil and epee.

The competitive squad trades jabs with and without weapons. In between bouts that recent evening, they engaged in good-spirited trash talk: “You’re next!”

The big group style of class is unique, said John Colt, an assistant coach.

Photo by Catherine Morrissey.
Two fencers spar in Charlotte on a recent evening.

“She has a good ability to assess how to communicate with a given student,” he said. “Everybody has their own language, especially when they’re young and they don’t know how their body works yet. I think she’s pretty good at that.”

Fox teaches students as young as 9 years old and doesn’t place an age limit on any of her classes. She’s taught students as old as 80.

Andrew Lamoreaux, 12, has been fencing for a year and a half now. The Burlington resident said fencing practice makes him “very hot, but the friends you meet are very valuable.” In fact, the entire Lamoreaux family are fencers. Husband and wife Zach and Julie regularly attend practices with their sons Isaac and Andrew.

“She’s very good at being encouraging without being discouraging,” the Lamoreaux dad said of Fox. “There’s a lot of places that fencing is a lot more serious and a lot less fun. You don’t realize it here.”

Rick Davis is the class’ oldest student and one of its best competitive fencers. He was first exposed to the sport at age 60 while attending graduate school in Seattle.

Now, at age 74, Davis finds fencing more engaging than ever. Other sports pale in comparison, he said.

“They don’t involve the constant analysis of what’s going on and that intellectual side of things,” he said. “Fencing does.”

“There’s also just the silliness,” Davis continued. “I mean, here I am dressed as a cross between a French courtier and a waiter and fighting with swords. How much better does it get?”

Fox has stuck with fencing for most of her life. She was 12 years old when she first saw the sport at summer camp in Pennsylvania.

“The counselor I had a crush on was a fencer — like, he was so cool,” she said. “So, I got hooked on it, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Fox became a master of the sport. Fencing at Harvard she earned All-Ivy honors. She’s a former North Atlantic women’s foil champ, has twice represented the United States at the Veteran’s World Championship and is a certified referee for USA Fencing, the sport’s national organizing body. This past April, she placed sixth in her age group at the North American Cup in Salt Lake City.

Photo by Catherine Morrissey
Fox, center, guides her class in Charlotte on a recent evening.

Jesse Lussier, president of the Vermont Fencing Alliance and a fencer for 15 years, had high praise for his coach.

“In ‘Star Wars’ terms, I would say she’s Yoda,” Lussier said. “She knows a lot about everything.”

Fox even shares some philosophies with the legendary Jedi master. Bouting with a student who was struggling to execute a parry that recent night, Fox issued a take on Yoda’s sage advice.

“I’m trying,” the student said.

“Don’t try, do!” Fox replied.

Her ability to adjust to individual learning styles makes Fox such an effective teacher, say her students.

“Viveka’s the only coach I’ve been with who has to transfer from elementary school, middle school kids to a 74-year-old like that,” said Davis, snapping his fingers. “She’s very engaging, she knows the sport intimately, she’s been doing it for I don’t even know how many years at this point, and she has a style that draws people in, gets them fencing quickly.”

She moved to Vermont in 1990 to take a teaching job at Middlebury Union High School. When a few of her students found out she fenced, they were eager to learn more.

“So, I started a little after-school club,” Fox said. “Everything grew from there.”

In 1992, Fox founded the first branch of the Vermont Fencing Alliance in Middlebury, which still meets at Mary Hogan Elementary School. The second branch opened in 1996 in Charlotte. In total, the alliance is home to about 80 students.

“Here in Vermont, because we have such a small population of fencers and it’s a pretty specialized sport, most of our events are mixed,” Fox said. “We just have the women and men play together.”

Fencing requires more than physical ability to succeed, something that puts duelists with smaller bodies on equal playing ground with larger foes, according to Fox.

“It’s technique, quickness, timing — brute strength doesn’t matter as much.”

During her stint at Harvard during the 1980s, women weren’t given the same opportunity as men when it came to competitive fencing, Fox said. The head coach refused to give lessons to women, she said, and Fox learned most of her skills from the assistant coaches.

“It was a very different scene, you know? I’m old enough that women were not in the NCAA until I was halfway through college,” she said. “Even though the college team that I was on now consists of, like, Olympians and amazingly skilled athletes, back then it was a little bit more easygoing.”

Above all, despite the challenges, fencing gave Fox confidence.

“Which is something that girls often are lacking,” she said, “especially in my generation.”

She hopes the idea will translate for her students — that no matter who you are, you can succeed when given the opportunity.

“Once you put on the fencing mask, nobody cares that you’re young or old, male or female,” she said. “You’re just another fencer.”

(Noah Diedrich reported this story on assignment from the The Charlotte News. The Community News Service is a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.)