En garde! Swashbucklers need not apply

Fencer Erin Olson specializes in the sabre event in which points are scored using the entire surface of the blade. / Photo: Owen Egan
Fencer Erin Olson specializes in the sabre event in which points are scored using the entire surface of the blade. / Photo: Owen Egan

Fast physics freshman wins provincial fencing title

By Neale McDevitt

Erin Olson doesn’t act much like a swashbuckler. When we meet, the physics freshman seems a bit shy, even embarrassed, that I’m there to interview her. No hint of Errol Flynn swagger in her.

(And forget the “Aaarrrrgggh” jokes. Fencers have all been there, done that.)

But, as the recently crowned Quebec Fencing Federation Triple-A champion, Olson merits a little attention. Going 14-0 in the tournament, the native of Minneapolis, Minn., became only the second McGill woman in history to win the event.

When asked what qualities make Olson such a fine fencer, McGill coach Andrew Dathan-Frankel smiles. “Exceptional aggressiveness, blinding speed and perfect execution.”

In fact, as with many athletes, Olson’s persona changes on the field of play. Donning her fencing mask, she squares off against Arts student Arik Schwartz for a friendly sabre bout.

At the referee’s signal, Olson moves forward rapidly using short, quick steps to force her opponent backward. Seeing an opening, she lunges forward and scores a point to Schwartz’s midsection. Four seconds have elapsed. Maybe only three.

I’m both amazed and disappointed at the speed with which Olson has dispatched Schwartz. Where was the back-and-forth? Where was the thrust-and-parry? Where was the Captain Blood flourish?

Then I remember what Dathan-Frankel had told me earlier. “Fencing isn’t about theatrics. We’re not about large movements. We try to make everything as small as possible.”

“You’ll never watch Star Wars movies the same way again,” Schwartz said, moments before being eviscerated – figuratively – by Olson.

The path that led Olson to fencing was equally small and without theatrics. “I was in eighth grade and a friend of mine was interested in trying it. The pamphlet looked cool so I tried it.”

Her speed and aggression made her a natural for the sabre, in which competitors are able to score points with edges and surfaces of the blade, not just the tip, as is the case with the other two weapons, the épée and foil.

When Olson showed up to McGill’s fencing club, Dathan-Frankel, whose coaching experience is limited to épée and foil, not only gained a highly skilled competitor, he also got a helping hand. “She only joined us this year, but immediately took charge of the sabre squad by leading drills, encouraging new recruits to compete in the weapon, and advising less experienced fencers,” he said.

On April 17, Olson furthered her commitment to the Fencing Club by running for and being elected President. It also looks as if she will be an official assistant coach next season. Pretty fast work for her first year in the club.

Of course, speed has always been Olson’s forte.