Varsity legacy pervades club fencing team

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Michael Vitoux teaches a group of students the basics of fencing at The Point Fencing Club in Champaign.

Two NCAA Championships. Thirty-four Big Ten titles.

Sophomore Katie Bora summed up her sport in just a few simple words.

“It’s like chess and dancing combined,” said Bora, who joined Illini fencing this year and is trying her hand at the sport for the very first time.

A constant struggle to maintain the mental lead while performing at a high physical level is the substance from which champions.

It was this formula that launched Illinois’ Division I men’s fencing team into the realm of collegiate fencing lore and produced one of the most storied programs this country has ever seen.

But that illustrious history is now just that — history. A once-great program is now merely a memory sealed away in records books and bygone players

In 1993, Illinois cut the fencing and men’s swimming and diving teams.

“At the time, the athletic department was operating on a budget deficit,” Associate Athletic Director of Athletic Communications Kent Brown said. “And I know they were looking for ways to save money.”

In struggling economies, cutting sports teams has become a way to tighten an overextended budget. In the past four years, California, Maryland and most recently Temple have all been schools who planned to or cut at least five of their Division I programs.

Though some were saved by donations, Brown added that universities are more likely to cut teams than add them.

With a limited number of participants and diminishing growth potential at both the high school and NCAA level, the decision was made to cut Illinois fencing.

Brown also said Title IX’s requirements to keep the money spent on athletics proportionate to the student body may have played a role in the final verdict as well. Just a few years later, women’s Division I soccer and softball were added.

But the fencing program’s history evoked much emotion as it drew out its final days.

“They had successful programs, and some of the great people that had been involved in fencing were here at Illinois,” Brown said. “It was very difficult to do. And usually that (cutting teams) is the last decision you want to make. It was really unfortunate that the program was cut. It was very emotional, especially for the alumni.”

With a sense of humor and an ability to relate each situation comically to his students, Michael Vitoux has no trouble relaying the lunges and positions of fencing to both his beginner and veteran students.

Sometimes it’s a hypothetical knife fight at 2 a.m., which he uses to teach the first fencing position called “en garde.” Other times he teaches fencers to reach up to a shelf for food — to practice extending the arms full length. The class is kept laughing throughout.

It‘s the first and last rule on the list that greets students as they walk into The Point, a fencing venue in downtown Champaign: “Have fun fencing.” Simple and direct, it’s repeated so its message hits home.

Vitoux, the co-founder of The Point, based this important concept off the principles he learned during his years competing for the men’s Division I fencing team back in 1964-68 as an undergraduate at Illinois and as an assistant coach for 10 years later.  

Like most of teammates, Vitoux had never fenced before coming to college, but went on to win three Big Ten titles with his team.

   Under the leadership of head coach and fencing legend Maxwell Garret, the program was in the middle of its glory days during Vitoux’s four years of college. Garret won two NCAA Championships and 17 Big Ten titles throughout his years as the fencing coach at Illinois from 1941-1972. He coached 28 All-Americans and finished lower than second in the Big Ten only once during his 28 years. Garret died in April 2013.

A coaching legend that defined Illinois fencing, Garret’s style is revered by fencers to this day.

“He was certainly a luminaire in the fencing world in a lot of different ways,” Brown said.

It is Garret’s principles that Vitoux uses in his classes.

“There was never any doubt of his knowledge of the sport,” Vitoux said. “He was a true gentleman of the sport. There was nothing that would get you benched faster than to be inappropriate on the (fencing) strip or around a competition. If you threw a mask or trash-talked, you were sitting down. One of his things was to instill in all of us that even though you’re competing at your top level, you’re still a gentleman in control.”

Though not a coach of the Illini, Vitoux’s presence is important.

It’s his USA Fencing-sanctioned facility in which the club team practices.

It’s his classes that beginners like Katie Bora take to gain their first love for fencing.

It is here, after multiple bus rides, that team members build a camaraderie that may seem averse to the individual sport that fencing is.

It is here where students learn more lessons applicable for later life than for use on the fencing strip.

“You gain the confidence of being able to move on your feet either offensively or defensively, whatever direction is necessary,” Vitoux said. “It’s a game of problems and solutions.”

Though the raw and devastating feelings that arose for Vitoux when Illinois fencing was cut still remain, the desire to compete is stronger than ever for the approximately 15 undergraduate and graduate students that make up the team.

“Club fencing allows people to be balanced academically and try something that they would not have had the opportunity to do in high school,” club president Alex Rwamashongye said.

Team members pay a membership fee to take classes at The Point and practice with the team after these classes. The club participated in Ohio State’s Duals tournament and is currently prepping for the Midwest Conference Championships to be played at Notre Dame the first weekend of March.

The mentalities of team members such as those of freshman Haley Lornec represent the values that Vitoux passes on from Garret.

“In one of the tournaments, I went for legs instead of the usual chest area and it worked,” Lornec said. “The other girl almost applauded the move. I was so proud of that moment.”

Playing a physiological and physical game, Illinois club fencing hints largely to its prolific past as it looks toward future tournaments.

Though unlikely to ever return as a varsity sport, the fluidity of the fencing itself represents, in a way, the history of all the past Illinois fencing teams.

“I’ve seen a bumper sticker that says ‘fencing is therapy,’” Vitoux said. “Because when you are fencing you cannot be faking it. You can’t be pretending you’re somebody you’re not because if you are, you’re going to lose a lot.”

Charlotte can be reached at [email protected]