Sada Jacobson Bâby’s Guide to Watching Fencing

The silver medalist explains the equipment, rules and maneuvers of her sport

Sada Jacobson Baby-main.jpg
Sada Jacobson Baby (right) of the United States battles with Leonore Perrus of France in the bronze medal match in the Women's Team Sabre event at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Phil Walter/Getty Images

Introducing the Expert

Name: Sada Jacobson Bâby
Games and Medals: Athens 2004 (bronze, individual saber); Beijing 2008 (silver, individual saber; bronze, team saber)
Key Quote: “People often call fencing ‘physical chess’ because of its strategic and athletic components. I love that this sport not only demands physical agility, speed and endurance, but also the ability to outthink your opponent.”


Weapon - There are three disciplines in fencing: foil, épée and saber. Each has its own rules, target area and weapon. Pro tip: Don’t call it a sword!

Body cord - The wire that connects to a fencer’s weapon, runs up her sleeve and connects to a reel leading to the scoring machine. When the fencer scores a touch, her light will illuminate.

Lamé -The metallic jacket worn by saber and foil fencers. The conductive material is used for scoring.


Lunge - A typical attacking move, the lunge is a fast extension used to quickly close the distance between two opponents. The fencer pushes off the back leg (which remains fully extended), landing on the bent front leg and extending the arm to reach her opponent.

Parry/riposte - This is one of the most basic defensive actions. When a fencer attempts to hit her opponent’s body, the opponent responds by blocking with her blade (a parry), and making a responsive hit (riposte) to score the point.

Point in line - A defensive maneuver in which a fencer extends her arm and weapon in a straight line towards her opponent. The opponent must hit the fencer’s blade before completing the attack in order to win the point.


1. Touché - Typically, a fencer will acknowledge a clear point against him or her by saying “touché.” It’s considered good form and builds credibility with the referee. Look for the fencer to hold up one index finger or signal to the ref with her weapon.

2. Flunge - A combination of the terms “flèche” and “lunge,” this saber move is an aggressive, one-legged jump used at the end of an attack to quickly close the distance between opponents.

3. Director - A referee


Points - Games are played to 15 touches. If after the third three-minute section, neither competitor has reached that total, the highest number of touches wins.

Right of way - In saber and foil, only one fencer can be the “attacker” at any one time; if an attacker and a defender hit simultaneously, the attacker wins the point. The attacker is usually the person who is moving forward at the time the point is scored, though there are some exceptions to this rule. Keep in mind that the attack can change hands several times over the course of one point. If you get confused, just watch the ref, who will indicate which fencer had the attack with a downward hand motion. Epée, on the other hand, has no right of way; if two fencers make simultaneous hits, both are awarded points.

Staying within the boundaries of the strip - A fencing bout takes place on a “strip,” measuring 14 meters by 2 meters. On defense, if a fencer passes behind the boundaries of the “warning box” at the end of the strip, her opponent wins the point.

Beating the blade - A way for the fencer on defense to take over right of way. If the defensive fencer is able to hit the top third of her opponent’s blade, she becomes the attacker.

One-minute break - Foil and épée have one-minute rest breaks after every three minutes of fencing. In saber, the one-minute break begins when one fencer earns eight touches. This is a great time to regroup and strategize with your coach. Look for changes in strategy and momentum after the minute break.

Game Changers

1936, 1956, and 1988 - Electronic scoring has made refereeing far more objective. It was introduced to épée in 1936, foil in 1956 and saber in 1988. No point can be awarded unless the fencer hits her opponent, illuminating one of the scoring lights.

2004 - Clear masks with a Plexiglas visor were introduced to make the sport more spectator-friendly.

2005 - Saber scoring machines are set so that after the first fencer’s hit registers, her opponent has only a certain amount of time (120 milliseconds) to hit before the scoring machine locks out and prevents the second touch from registering. The lockout time was decreased in 2005 and has dramatically changed saber strategy.

2008 - Slow motion replay came into use just before the 2008 Olympics. If a fencer doesn’t like the ref’s call, she has a limited number of challenges to request video review.

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