Saber-Fighting Warrior

At the en-garde line, Eunice Yi thrives amid the swordplay.

"There is something so visceral about facing off against another person," says fencer Eunice Yi '04. "You line up at the en-garde line, and you both know that the point has to end by someone hitting someone else." Yet a fencing bout also exudes stateliness and ceremony. First, the athletes test their weapons to confirm that the electrical circuits inside—which help score the bout—work. Then the fencers salute their opponents, the fencing officials (called "directors"), and, in national tournaments, the audience. Failure to obey protocol may be penalized.

After these niceties, controlled mayhem breaks out; rigid formalities attempt to ritualize the underlying savagery of the sport, which, like boxing, is a nearly pure form of one-on-one combat. Saber may be fencing's least civilized event. Of the three weapons—foil, épée, and saber—the saber bouts are the least precise and the fastest moving. How fast, you ask? Yi has won five-point bouts (the directors award points depending on a fencer's success with attacks, parries, and counterattacks), in just 30 seconds, although the bouts can also last several minutes.

Eunice Yi holds her saber and mask in front of a photograph of Harvard fencers from another era.
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Foil and épée are "point weapons": those who wield them score by touching the opponent with a spring-loaded, electrically conductive tip. But saber is a slashing weapon; you can strike your opponent with the whole blade. "Saber is a lot more flamboyant," explains Peter Brand, Harvard's head fencing coach, a saber fencer himself. "It's more athletic, the physical requirements are greater, and you have to make very quick decisions, much faster than with the other two weapons. In saber, it's both a lot easier to score, and a lot harder to defend."

Saber, then, is a game of offense. Cavalry soldiers once used the weapon, which is lighter than the other two and has a large bell protecting the hand and wrist. "Something about saber attracts really intense people," Yi says. "Or, maybe fencing with a saber makes people very intense! During a bout, you can vocalize, though you can't gloat. There's more yelling in saber—it's more aggressive." Aggressive enough that at almost any point in the season, which lasts from November to March, Yi can show you some arm bruises, since the scoring zone in saber is the entire upper body. (Epée fencers, whose target is the whole body, may have leg bruises as well.)

Yi, Harvard's top female fencer, has thrived amid the wild swordplay. "She's extremely competitive and fights hard," says Brand. "Eunice is very quick, strong, and tall—that's important, because of the reach. She has good footwork and timing, plus quick hands and strong technique. She is also extremely bright, which helps a lot because there is so much strategy involved." Yi often fights the final match for the team, since she handles pressure well. An all-Northeast fencer the past two seasons, last year Yi added all-Ivy to her laurels and placed third at the Intercollegiate Fencing Association (IFA) championships, a far older tournament than the NCAA event and one that includes 13 of the top fencing colleges in the country.

Last spring Yi missed her biggest goal—qualifying for the NCAA national tournament—by only one point. "It was a split-second mistake against my Yale rival, Sophie Jones," she says, adding that she has reset her sights on this year's NCAAs. (The NCAA nationals are in March at Brandeis, shortly after the IFA tournament at Vassar.) Asking Yi about her victories does not yield any lengthy spiel. "I don't keep track of my numbers too much," she explains. "That takes the focus away from my actual fencing."

Yi's mental toughness also figures into her success. "The most impressive thing about Eunice is that she has overcome a lot of obstacles and become very successful," Brand says. "Her immigrant family had nothing, and still has nothing. She became not only a fine athlete, but a terrific student and a great person."

Born in Seoul, Yi spent her early years on a chicken farm in South Korea; she's amused by the contrast between these origins and the "image of fencing as a super-preppy sport." Though she goes by Eunice, her legal name is Si—"Even by Korean standards, it's a really weird name," she says. Her family, including father Donghyon and mother Ayoung, moved to the United States when their daughter was five years old; they lived in St. Louis and Albuquerque before settling in the suburbs of Chicago when Eunice was nine. Both parents were teachers in Korea; today they run a small dry-cleaning business.

"We were on shaky financial ground," Yi recalls. The family moved into "the only apartment in Kenilworth, Illinois," she says, and her parents commuted an hour each way to work. Their goal was to live where Eunice could attend New Trier in Winnetka, a nationally known public high school. "[My parents] sacrificed a lot for me," says Yi. "It's typical of the Asian immigrant-parent mentality. But there wasn't a lot of pressure. They always let me do my own thing."

That thing was fencing. At New Trier she went out for the sport "on a whim" after playing basketball and sprinting in junior high. The school's charismatic fencing coach, Colby Vargas—"He was a big young guy with tattoos who ran the socialist club and taught pop-culture classes," Yi recalls—had noticed the growing popularity of women's saber fencing (only a few years old as an organized sport) and foresaw colleges recruiting saber-wielding females. Yi took to saber right from the start, and notes, "I was fortunate to go to New Trier, where you didn't have to buy your own equipment." (Other impoverished fencers benefit from six-time Olympian Peter Westbrook's eponymous foundation, which teaches the sport to inner-city youths.) Summer jobs earned Yi money to fly to the Junior Olympics, which she entered all four years of high school.

Brand had been in touch with Yi when she was a senior, and saw her compete in a national tournament, where she finished an impressive nineteenth. When they met there, "He gave me a hug," Yi recalls. "I could tell right away what a nice guy Peter was, and that fencing at Harvard wouldn't be a scary, intimidating thing."

Financial aid enabled her to attend the College, where the fencing program has been improving under Brand, now in his fourth year as the men's and women's coach. Harvard has never been a fencing power: the Crimson men shared the Ivy title twice in the 1970s; the women have never won. But last spring, Harvard placed eighth at the NCAAs, not far behind Ivy League rivals Columbia and Princeton—and four Crimson fencers earned all-American honors, which happened only once before, in 1997. Those four included Yi's teammate, foil artist Chloe Stinetorf '06. On the men's side, Tim Hagamen '06 is taking this year off to train for the Olympics in saber, but two fellow all-Americans, sophomores David Jakus (saber) and Julian Rose (épée) return to the intercollegiate en-garde line this season.

Brand helped Yi get some lessons from an Olympic bronze medalist, Hristo Etroupolski. "It's nice getting to work with world-class athletes," she says, "in addition to associating with world-class intellects here at Harvard." Yi is no intellectual slouch herself; a neurobiology concentrator, she plans to apply to medical school next year while taking a year off "to do something service-oriented."

"Social justice matters to me," she explains. "It's strange that in such a developed society, basic needs aren't being met. Seeing people sleeping on the street bothers me a lot. Another thing is that I'm Mormon, and that's part of my motivation. It has helped me get through; I have a sense of a bigger purpose."

Brand sees her setting an example. "She's an excellent role model for others here," he says. "I've noticed over and over that people who overcome a lot tend to be the most successful."

~Craig Lambert


Read more articles by Craig Lambert

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