Championship fencers are created as much as they’re born.
For three area youths — 17-year-old saber fencers Eli Dershwitz of Sherborn and Andrew Mackiewicz of Westwood, and 18-year-old épée swordsman Alex House of Upton — it’s a process that began before the age of 10.
Nicknamed “physical chess,” fencing’s psychological component requires years of refinement before reaching elite status; the moment when foot speed and hand-eye quickness match strategic acumen and emotional maturity.
“You need about seven, eight years,” said Zoran Tulum, owner of Zeta Fencing Studio in Natick, and the only coach Dershwitz and Mackiewicz have ever known. “It takes a lot of practice, determination, and self-control.”
Competitive fencing’s demands include extensive travel — and for periods as short as 24 hours. It’s not been uncommon for the three local teens to have a parent waiting at Logan Airport on a Monday morning to chauffeur them to their first-period class.
Despite the toils, however, Dershwitz, Mackiewicz, and House recently took a huge step toward their dream of a Summer Olympics berth; they were named to the 18-member US National Junior Fencing Team, for athletes under 20 years old.
With three distinct weapons — épée, foil, and saber — not all fencing is the same. Épée is the heaviest, and has the largest target area; the foil is lighter, and points are earned by hitting the torso; and the saber is used to slash above the waist.
The teammates will travel together to the Junior World Championships in Croatia (April 6-15), but with differing expectations.
The 6-foot, 170-pound Dershwitz has the best odds of medaling. A junior at Dover-Sherborn High, he is the top-ranked US junior saber fencer, and ranked second internationally.
Dershwitz followed his older brother, Philip, who now fences for Princeton University as a junior, into the sport, while his twin sister, Sally, opted for gymnastics and lacrosse.
“Philip blazed the way, so to speak,” said their mother, Renee Goetzler. She and her husband, Mark Dershwitz, “actually tried to discourage Eli a little bit,’’ Goetzler said. “We thought he could try tae kwon do or maybe a different weapon within fencing. We didn’t want them directly competing. But he really wanted to do this.”
Dershwitz possesses an unusual blend of talent, according to Tulum, a native of Yugoslavia who coached collegiately at both Harvard and Stanford, and opened his fencing club in Natick (www.zetafencing.com) in 2001.
“There are technicians and improvisers . . . and champions have both,” said Tulum, who is head coach of the saber squad for the US men’s junior team heading to Croatia next month. “Eli is extremely creative in finding solutions just as in chess. It’s not only following the rules and how you move the figures, but can you set up situations to trick your opponent.
“Creativity is what makes Eli different than most other fencers,” Tulum said.
Last year, at his first world championships, Dershwitz nearly became the junior field’s youngest saber champion.
He was leading 13-8, and needed only two touches to capture gold, but his South Korean opponent rallied to pull out a 15-14 victory. It was a crushing defeat, but one that also showcased Dershwitz’s perseverance.
“He bounces back faster than anybody I know,” said Tulum. “Two touches to be a world champion. . . Then, he loses 14-15. It’s devastating. One hour later he’s talking to his friends, making jokes. This is what keeps him the way he is.”
For Dershwitz, it was a learning experience that fortified his love of fencing and heightened his motivation to excel.
“I love how, no matter what you do, your opponent can do something and then you do something else to try and win a touch,” said Dershwitz, who has held the top US ranking for 18 straight months. “No two touches are the same.
“I always hear to stay at a high competitive level is harder than getting up there, so it pushes me to work harder, practice more, eat healthier, work out more, try to push myself to be the best that I can.”
Dershwitz has the good fortune of practicing daily against the third-ranked US junior saber fencer, Mackiewicz.
The 6-foot-1, 170 pound junior at Westwood High emulated his older sister, Aleksandra, now a senior at Brown University, who stopped fencing after she won a 2009 NCAA Sportsmanship Award.
“I was 8 at the time my sister started fencing,” said Mackiewicz, whose younger brother, Nicholas, also fences. “I was really into ‘Star Wars.’ I realized that I could find a connection and actually do something that was like sword fighting in the movies.”
It took some time and urging from his parents, Henry and Anna, before Mackiewicz completely committed.
“I started trying it and it was fine, but before everything clicked I wasn’t that great,” he said. “I did it more recreationally than taking it seriously and competitively. So my parents pushed me into it because when I was young they saw the outcomes I could get. . . And me being young and foolish, I did not see everything I could get — able to travel all around the world and compete’’ against other elite athletes.
Once it clicked, Tulum knew he had something special.
“He’s a born athlete,” said Tulum. “Not afraid of anybody and in amazing physical shape.
“He sometimes makes his victory differently. Sometimes he’s not tricking his opponents much, he just uses his bravery and athleticism.”
Every day in practice, Mackiewicz and Dershwitz challenge each other.
“We help each other, we work off of the other’s skills,” Mackiewicz said. “It’s good, especially when things get a little heated when we’re fencing each other,’’ he said, with the challenge preparing them for competition.
The 6-foot-5, 160-pound House, a senior at Worcester Academy who drives an hour from his Upton home to practice at Wilmington’s Vivo Fencing Club (www.vivofencingclub.com), does not have an épée fencer of similar talent with whom to practice. As a result, his Hungarian coaches, Arpad Horvath, who owns the Wilmington club, and Ervin Szucs, an assistant coach at Brown, recently brought in outside competition.
“I think it was a big help to have two Hungarian national team members over here the last six months,” said Szucs, who has been coaching Alex since September.
Over three weeks last month, House’s US ranking in épée jumped from 20th to third, a leap that earned him the final spot on the junior squad.
“I wasn’t in the mind-set that I was going to prepare for world championships,” he said.
“I was at that point thinking, let’s have some fun and get some experience. Then, that first breakthrough happened in Sweden at the World Cup,’’ where he scored a top-eight finish, “and all of a sudden people started saying, ‘Hey, you have a shot at making the team.’ ”
House, who has been accepted to fence at Princeton University next fall, is described by Szucs as “a really intelligent person and fencer, learning fast and picking up everything really easy and putting it in his repertoire, not only for training but also for competitions.”
The only child of Tim and Ann House, and the first fencer in the family, Alex said he is looking to make it into the top 16 next month in Croatia, even while believing he is capable of finishing higher. But for his first world championships, he said, he figured it was probably a good place to set the bar.
With fencers typically peaking in their mid 20s to early 30s, and the 2020 and 2024 Summer Olympics looming, it may not be the last time the threesome teams up for their country.Paul Lazdowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.